NASHVILLE — Tennessee National Guard members who go AWOL could land in jail for almost a year if convicted under a bill approved Wednesday by House Judiciary Committee members.
Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, said he brought the absent-without-leave legislation because Hamilton County judges discovered they were handing out stricter punishments to offenders than permitted under state law.
“I had just attended at that time my fifth Iraqi casualty funeral,” Rep. Floyd told Judiciary Committee members, describing his reaction when sentences of up to 11 months and 29 days were discovered to be illegal for AWOL guardsmen.
“I just think it sends the wrong message that these young men and women can join our National Guard, make a commitment and then decide they don’t want to go to drill,” he said.
Current law makes it a Class C misdemeanor — with jail time of up to 30 days and $50 in fines — for a non-federally activated Tennessee National Guard member who goes AWOL.
Hamilton County judges had handed down sentences of up to 11 months and 29 days in at least 11 cases, a Times Free Press examination found last August.
Rep. Floyd’s bill would make being AWOL a Class A misdemeanor, with penalties of up to 11 months and 29 days in jail and up to $2,500 in fines.
It also would bump up from Class C to Class A other offenses such as assaulting or “willfully” disobeying a superior commissioned officer and engaging in “insubordinate conduct” toward a warrant officer.
During the Judiciary Committee meeting, Rep. Henry Fincher, D-Cookeville, an attorney, said the state’s penalties would apply only to non-federally activated guardsmen. Federally activated members are dealt with under the federal Uniform Code of Military Justice, he said.
Chattanooga attorney Hallie McFadden, who formerly served in the U.S. Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s office, was responsible for revealing problems in local AWOL sentencing. She said the bill was “grandstanding to try to make a popular political point.”
If a Tennessee National Guard member has not been federally activated, being AWOL “means they missed a weekend drill,” she said. The National Guard could move to get rid of offenders, she said.
Rep. Floyd said many guardsmen had received sign-up bonuses.
Ms. McFadden said disappearing while on active duty is far more serious. Still, Ms. McFadden said she did not have as much problem with increasing insubordination punishments.
In a statement, Tennessee Adjutant General Gus Hargett said, “this proposed bill will give us a stronger option in which to deal with these few individuals.”
Hamilton County General Sessions Judge Robert Moon last summer sentenced a Dunlap, Tenn., man to 11 months and 29 days with a $1,000 fine until he realized prosecutors’ recommendations were not correct.
“Representative Floyd’s bill certainly adds teeth and should serve as a much better deterrent to soldiers who don’t want to fulfill their commitment,” the judge said.
The bill will be heard next week by the Calendar and Rules Committee, which schedules bills for the floor. The Senate version is sponsored by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...