Just when you think that it's safe to assume that U.S. Army leaders know what they are doing - they prove you wrong again. Just a year after the black beret fiasco - where the service leaders decided that stealing the elite Ranger headgear and issuing it to every chaplain's aide, legal clerk and REMF would instantly infuse the entire Army with higher morale - the politicians and generals running the show have outdone themselves by an entire order of magnitude. Now they want us to be kind and gentle with deserters - in the middle of a war, no less! Without fanfare, the Army last Oct. 1 quietly changed its longstanding policy toward deserters, who for decades had faced courts-martial, hard time in prison and up to a dishonorable discharge for being absent without leave for more than 30 days. The new policy formally directs all unit commanders that from this point forward they must welcome AWOL, and dropped from the rolls (DFR) soldiers - deserters - back into their commands with open arms. Unit commanders are directed to accept the cowards, non-team players, the non-productive, the worst of all soldiers, and make them good soldiers again! At the center of the new deserter processing policy change is the decision to place the burden on rehabilitating deserters on their unit commanders - down to the company level. No one doubts that a major personnel crisis has quietly enveloped the Army since the mid-1990s. Maj. Doug Carr, a personnel specialist at Army headquarters in the Pentagon, told DefenseWatch that between 1996 and 2001, over 18,000 army soldiers went over-the-hill and absented themselves from their units long enough - in excess of 30 days - to be formally classified as deserters. Worse, the number of deserters each year had steadily grown, from 1,509 in 1995 to 4,739 in 2001. Secretary of the Army Thomas White has determined that the Army cannot solve this problem through the Uniform Code of Military Justice, so he has stepped in to mandate the new policy and procedure, right down to the battalion and company level. In an undated U.S. Army Forces Command memorandum implementing the secretary's new deserter policy, sent to DefenseWatch by a concerned infantry officer, Gen. Larry R. Ellis defends the change on the grounds that returning soldiers to their original unit will serve to "restore them into productive soldiers." Unit commanders in FORSCOM are further instructed to "welcome these soldiers back to their unit, listen as objectively as possible to their reasons for going AWOL, and help them solve the problem or perception that motivated them to leave in the first place," the memo added. (A FORSCOM spokesperson told DefenseWatch that the Fort McPherson headquarters staff "could not verify" the accuracy of the memorandum obtained by DefenseWatch. Army officials noted that the new deserter policy had been implemented by that command last Sept. 1, a month earlier than the rest of the Army and two full months before Ellis assumed command of FORSCOM in November 2001. However, Army officials said the memorandum did accurately reflect the new service policy.) Ironically, the new deserter policy - which has prompted widespread (but private) criticism from mid-level officers and senior NCOs charged with carrying out its ridiculous mandate - has yet to be formally announced in Europe even though four months have passed since the Army leadership enacted it. Thus when I approached a number of fellow soldiers in U.S. Army Europe units to gauge their reactions, the first one was that of shock and disbelief that such a policy was even in the works. When I recited the new DFR policy to two first sergeants and a command sergeant major, they simply gaped at me with their mouths open. The command sergeant major, the older and crustier of the three senior NCOs, thought a moment then said the policy would be fine with him as long as he could invoke the same accountability on a returned deserter as the Marine and Army guards have imposed on their Taliban and al Qaeda guests at Guantanamo Bay. He then added that he has no money for chain-link fencing in his budget. One battalion commander warned that dozens of subordinate Army commands would have to essentially re-institute the battalion- or brigade-level correctional custody facilities long done away with. A company commander, who is a fine young officer and good friend attempted humor: "Hey, why not? I am doing a million other things that interfere with me commanding, what is just one more?" Anyone who knows the reality of this policy must understand that it is going to cause a severe drain on resources, money, time, morale, and soldier power. The former Army policy was simple and straightforward, according to Maj. Carr. Soldiers classified as deserters who were returned to military control were sent to either of two personnel control facilities (Fort Sill, Okla., or Fort Knox, Ky.). In 95 percent of the cases, the deserters were thrown out of the Army with "other than honorable" discharges. Translation: We threw the bums out and did not re-afflict them on their units and their overtasked unit commanders who have a vital mission to carry out. In his DefenseWatch interview, Major Carr made a curious connection between the imposition of the new policy on deserters with another Army problem: meeting sufficient recruiting quotas to preserve the "steady state" of the Army's endstrength. We saw that [rise in the number of soldiers opting to desert] as an easy way out of the Army. We have been working very diligently to reduce attrition as the Army has reached a steady state of 480,000 soldiers," Carr explained. He also revealed a significant fact: the Army leadership in the mid- to late-1990s failed to address the worsening desertion rate, to the end that the two processing centers became "overwhelmed," in Maj. Carr's words, by the sheer volume of cases. As a result, deserters were rarely tried and incarcerated upon conviction, instead hastily handed a bad-paper discharge and shown to the door. Now, it is apparent, the Army is prepared to do just about anything to try to keep these manpower figures stable - even at the cost of worsening morale servicewide. By returning the deserter to his or her parent unit where his commanders and senior NCOs must drop other tasks and responsibilities in the effort to make a new soldier out of an apathetic, undedicated and probably worthless malcontent, the new policy will be carried out at the expense of the unit's mission and the morale of good soldiers. The former deserter will have to be diagnosed, evaluated, referred, and accompanied on all of his or her appointments, by probably at least two soldiers, one being an NCO. The deserter's rights will be respected, of course, so that means numerous trips to Legal Assistance. His or her moral commitments will have to be reassessed and refocused, and that translates into trips to the Chaplain. Not to mention the physical protection that will be required to protect the deserter from the rest of the unit. Contrary to what its senior leaders believe, the Army is not going to get better from this policy. The quality of the force will not improve, retention will not go up, and the recruiting challenge will not go away. It is my assertion, from my view in the foxhole, that the non-productive soldier will likely taint the returned deserter's entire unit. In fact, I fear the policy will backfire and, rather than lower the incidents of desertion, make it easier for other soldiers to rationalize unapproved sabbaticals from their Army responsibilities. It is truly disheartening to see the Army's civilian leader forcing such bad policy on an Army that is strained by a serious resource crisis at home, and the dangers of the war against terrorism. I assert that this is a clear illustration of how senior Army leaders are grossly out of touch with soldiers and the day-to-day operation of their units. Let's call this for what it is: rewarding a non-compliant soldier for his or her non-compliance.