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Missing soldiers bigger priority now

Soldiers of the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, stand at attention at Zagan, Poland, April 1, 2022. Photo credit: Spc. Hassani Ribera Soto

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WASHINGTON - Since the publication of Army Directive 2020-16, Determination and Reporting of Missing, Absent-Unknown, Absent Without Leave, and Duty Status-Whereabouts Unknown Soldiers, the urgency and timeliness of locating soldiers who are missing from formation has been improved across the force at all levels.

"On a recent trip to Fort Hood, I was privileged to visit the First Cavalry Division's Pegasus Troop where soldier in-processing is taken to a whole new level," said Hon. Carrie F. Ricci, the Army General Counsel, also a member of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee. "They have made it their priority to know the solider personally as well as their family support system. I inquired about implementation of the missing soldier protocols, and I was impressed. They are on it - from their families to their battle buddies, soldiers are embraced by their new Army family."

The Army Directive, released in December 2020 alongside the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee report recommendations, clarifies expectations during the first 48 hours after a soldier fails to report for duty.

"We've empowered leaders at every level to use all the resources available to them to go find soldiers," said Maj. Gen. Duane Miller, Provost Marshal General and commanding general of Army Corrections Command. "You don't have to rely on law enforcement to go find your soldiers, but I can now send platoons out into the local community. It's empowered them to get the whole community to look for one soldier or two soldiers."

"What we're seeing in a lot of instances is early return of the soldier to the formations, because we're employing everything we've got available to us to go find the soldier," he said. "We're getting an opportunity early on to wrap our arms around the soldier, because everybody's involved in bringing them back to our team."

The directive has been a step in the right direction to enable Army leaders to maximize their efforts in finding missing soldiers. Instead of labeling soldiers as absent without leave - or AWOL - they will get the proper help they need, which could be detrimental to their safety or career.

"What really bothered me and challenged me, anytime we had a soldier depart our formation, we had this moniker that was placed on them, called AWOL," Miller said. "When people went AWOL, it typically connotated a negative moniker."

Perceptions of the public as well as in the minds of many soldiers, having the AWOL status could cause repercussions because of the negative view of the status, Miller said. People would see a soldier with the AWOL status without really knowing why the soldier departed the formation and make, often negative, assumptions about the reason.

It would often make the public and soldiers think they were in trouble and might not receive the help they need, he continued.

Sometimes, soldiers were flagged in criminal databases just because of an honest mistake, like thinking they were on leave when they really weren't. And other times, soldiers may need mental health services but are apprehensive of coming back because of the repercussions of being AWOL.

"If a soldier goes missing, these close connections and the soldier's family are immediately tapped through the missing soldier protocol process," Ricci said. "Before the directive made this process mandatory, reaction time and procedures could vary from unit to unit. Now every chain of command across the Army must follow this effective and efficient process."

Under the new directive, the duty status code absent-unknown was created to make a temporary duty status while commanders search for an absent soldier.

"The Army looked at the entire process, we looked at what we've learned in (the) combat environment: we don't always label soldiers AWOL in a combat environment," Miller said. "We saw units put, really, a whole lot of effort into trying to retrieve our soldiers once they came up missing. In conversations with senior leaders (we decided) to get away from this AWOL term because we don't know enough about the soldier."

Now, the directive lays out that when a soldier goes missing and until a soldier's status is confirmed, they have the absent-unknown status attached to them. Once there is evidence about their absence, they will transition to another duty status. For example, if it is found that a soldier went missing involuntarily, the soldier's duty status becomes duty status-whereabouts unknown, or DUSTWUN.

"Just like our soldiers protect our nation from our adversaries, we must in turn protect and safeguard our soldiers," said Ricci. "The Army Directive that covers missing soldier protocols published in the wake of the Fort Hood Independent Review details a precise and methodical process with strict timeframes designed to identify and locate missing soldiers as quickly as possible. These protocols engage the entire military and law enforcement community as well as the missing soldier's family, with a greater sense of urgency instilled in this mandatory process."

Inspired by the battle drills of DUSTWUN while deployed in a combat zone, the directive provides units and Army leaders the ability to maximize their efforts in finding missing soldiers in conjunction with bolstered unit and law enforcement action to assist in the search. Commanders are required to report the soldier's absence to local Army law enforcement within three hours.

"There are capabilities on the law enforcement side that we have. We can put in requests to identify (missing soldiers) through the use of the cell phones," Miller said. "We can make sure the soldier didn't just leave the formation for a day to check into the hospital. We got to get everybody involved."

The directive also places a responsibility to notify and partner with the missing soldier's family, with a notification of the soldier's absence within eight hours. Also, if the soldier is considered a DUSTWUN, the family will be assigned a liaison officer during the search.

In the directive, there are also additional actions to be carried out by commanders, military police, first responders, provost marshal's office, directorate of emergency services, Army criminal investigation division, and public affairs teams. Their additional actions further assist search efforts by fostering consistent communication.

"We're getting soldiers back in our formation sooner, and if they need help, getting them help sooner, rather than let them try to deal with whatever it is they're challenged with, by themselves," Miller said.

Also built into the directive and battle drills is the function to tend to a soldier's mental health needs if it is needed.

Sometimes soldiers have bad days and leave even though they know it is wrong, but they might need some mental health help, and it is important to get to know their needs, Miller said.

"Soldiers are more at risk when he or she is out there alone thinking they're in a lot of trouble, when in fact they're not. We really just want to get you back to see what we can do to help you and understand why you made the decision you made," Miller said. "I think every leader would rather have that as an outcome as opposed to something else where a soldier is challenged with multiple issues or doesn't have anyone to talk to."

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