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What Does it Mean to be AWOL?

A soldier.
Soldiers have chosen to abandon their post throughout time, and some still do today.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 10 September 2014
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AWOL, pronounced A-wall, is an acronym for "absent without leave," or to refer to one who is absent without leave. Sometimes people mistranslate AWOL as away without leave. The term originated, by most accounts, during the American Civil War. Many soldiers from both sides were AWOL because of disastrous situations requiring their help at home. Early pronunciation of the term was A-W-O-L, with each letter being pronounced. Like many acronyms of military origin, it has been shortened to be said like a word.

Margaret Mitchell, in her famous novel, Gone With the Wind asserts that many confederate soldiers went AWOL because of drastic shortages in food. Particularly as confederate money decreased in value and blockade-runners had more difficulty getting supplies through, people who farmed for a living were faced with the prospect of starvation without the help of a soldier returning home to plant, tend and harvest crops. Mitchell states that many commanders in the confederate forces overlooked these AWOL absences.

However, there is evidence that AWOL absences were certainly not always overlooked. A person who deserted from the army, or who returned late could be court-martialed and imprisoned or executed. On the other hand, shortage of troops might mean a soldier who went AWOL and returned possibly was welcomed back. It would have been poor military strategy to execute an able-bodied man.

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The Union army had a better chance of avoiding military sanctions by remaining AWOL. Many soldiers who went AWOL simply left for the west where it was easier to avoid being prosecuted for deserting. More likely, court-martial and execution awaited those who were captured since a greater supply of manpower for the Northern front existed.

Since the Civil War, the term AWOL has applied to any soldier in the armed forces who is absent without leave. Failure to report after a leave can also result in an AWOL status. Though punishment tends to be less severe for a minor AWOL infraction, like showing up a few hours late, deserting may still be met with more severe punishment, including imprisonment. Execution is, however, rare and unlikely to occur for someone who deserts. Most often, deserters are given prison sentences and are dishonorably discharged from the military.

People may use the term AWOL when referring to being absent from the workplace or school without a reasonable excuse. For example a teen who cuts school might say, “Yeah, I’m AWOL today," and pay the price the next day. People, who go AWOL from work, tend to get fired, unless there was a good reason why the person could not notify his or her employer of the absence in advance.

Some also use the term more loosely when taking a sick day when they’re not really sick. They may consider themselves AWOL because their leave was granted on a false premise. Essentially they lied about being ill in order to have a day off.

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