A total of 3,196 active-duty soldiers deserted the Army last year, or 853 more than previously reported, according to revised figures from the Army.
The new calculations by the Army significantly alter the annual desertion totals since fiscal year 2000. In 2005, for example, the Army now says that 2,543 soldiers deserted, not the 2,011 it had reported. For some earlier years, the desertion numbers were revised downward. National Public Radio first reported Tuesday that the Army had been inaccurately reporting desertion figures.
A soldier is considered a deserter if he leaves his post without permission, quits his unit or fails to report for duty with the intent of staying away permanently. Soldiers who are absent without leave - or AWOL, a designation that assumes that a soldier intends to return to duty - automatically are classified as deserters and are dropped from a unit's rolls if they remain away for more than 30 days.
Some Army officers link the recent uptick in annual desertion rates to the toll of wartime deployments and point to the increasing percentage of troops who are on their second or third tours in Iraq or Afghanistan.
An Army spokeswoman, Maj. Anne Edgecomb, gave different reasons. Most soldiers desert because of personal, family or financial problems, she said, adding, "We don't have any facts to indicate that soldiers who desert now are doing so for reasons different from why soldiers deserted in the past."
Lt. Col. Brian C. Hilferty, an Army spokesman, said the desertion data errors were caused by confusion among employees who tally them.
"They were counting things wrong and doing it inconsistently," he said. "We are looking at the rise in desertions, but the numbers remain below pre-war levels and retention remains high, so the force is healthy."
The Army's failure to count its deserters accurately is inexcusable, said Derek B. Stewart, the director for Defense Department personnel issues for the Government Accountability Office.
"It is just unbelievable to the GAO to hear that the Army does not know what that number is," he said yesterday. "In the context of their current recruiting problems for certain occupations, these desertion numbers are huge."
The Army's new figures also show a faster rise in the rate of desertions over the previous two fiscal years than the Army had disclosed. In 2006, desertions rose by 27 percent, not 17 percent, as reported previously, an Army spokesman said.
The Army's revised figures show 2,543 desertions in fiscal year 2005, an 8 percent increase from the 2,357 the year before. Previously, the service said 2005 desertions fell 17 percent, to 2,011 from 2,432.
But from fiscal year 2000 through 2003, there were hundreds fewer desertions than the Army had previously reported. The Army's revised data, while reflecting significant errors in year-to-year desertions, showed 22,468 desertions since fiscal year 2000, nearly the same as the old count of 22,586.
Overall, desertions, a chronic problem in the Army but hardly pervasive, now account for less than 1 percent of active-duty soldiers. The current annual rates pale in comparison with the 33,094 soldiers - 3.41 percent of the total force - who deserted the Army in 1971, during the Vietnam War.