Morale among some war-weary GIs in Iraq is so low that a growing number of soldiers - including some now home on R&R - are researching the consequences of going AWOL, according to a leading support group.
The GI Rights Hotline, a national soldiers' support service, has logged a 75 percent increase in calls in the last 12 weeks, with more than 100 of those calls from soldiers, or people on their behalf, asking about the penalties associated with going AWOL - "absent without leave" - according to volunteers and staffers who man the service.
Many of the calls have come from soldiers who are among those now on the first wave of 15-day authorized leaves that began almost two weeks ago. Some hotline callers have indicated they may not return, staffers said.
"What would happen if I just don't go back" to Iraq, one soldier asked a worker at a GI support-line center.
"I'm going to shoot myself in the foot," said another, referring to his solution for getting home.
Some soldiers are so desperate that they have called directly from the war zone, contacting the hotline when they can get satellite-phone access or after waiting in line for hours in the desert for a military phone.
So worried is military brass about the prospect of desertion that many soldiers say they have been encouraged to take their leaves in Germany - a stopover - to avoid temptation stateside.
"The military is aware of how low troop morale is," said Teresa Panepinto, program coordinator of The GI Rights Hotline, a service that dates back to the Korean War. "They're concerned these people are going to come home and not go back."
Volunteers throughout the country take live calls and respond to messages left by soldiers who want to know their rights. One call base is in a small office in a building on Lafayette Street in the East Village.
Panepinto said monthly calls to the hotline have risen from 2,000 to 3,500 in the last three months.
She said many soldiers complained about the length of the Iraq campaign, the rough desert conditions and a U.S. death toll that has risen well above 300, including nearly 180 soldiers killed after President Bush's May 1 declaration that major combat operations in Iraq had ended.
Pentagon officials said they had no up-to-date numbers on soldiers who have gone AWOL since the Iraq campaign, but an affidavit that surfaced at a recent court martial for a soldier charged with desertion put the number at more than 50.
Most of those charged were reservists who were activated and did not report, said Steve Collier, a lawyer representing a soldier charged with desertion.
Penalties for going AWOL range from a bad-conduct discharge to a court martial and jail time.
Military officials maintain that morale remains high among soldiers, who are paid more in combat zones, and that authorized leaves are being granted as "an investment in readiness."
Maj. Pete Mitchell, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, said the military code of justice is a significant deterrent to unauthorized absences.
"There is a possibility that somebody would make that decision," Mitchell said. "We're going to extend good faith that people are going to make the right decisions here."
Like the GI Rights Hotline staffers, Manhattan resident Julie Garfield said she would never encourage her nephew, Aaron Garfield, to desert his posting as a reservist in Iraq.
But if he did, she would probably cry tears of joy, she said. Aaron, who has never indicated that going AWOL is an option for him, has been in Baghdad six months.
"If he went AWOL I wouldn't blame him," said his aunt, who has been the significant adult in his life.
"They ripped him away from his life and education. He spent nine months in Bosnia. It's enough already."
In recent e-mails, Aaron says soldier morale is low because reservists are forced to stay while active-duty troops are being allowed to leave, if only for two weeks.
"There is no morale here," he wrote his aunt. "The leadership just doesn't care about us. I don't want anything to do with this mess anymore."
Lt. Gen. James Helmly, chief of the 205,000-mem- ber Army Reserve, warned recently that there could be an exodus of active and reserve forces if the United States fails to get other countries to join the Iraq campaign.
José Alvarez, an Army corporal now on duty in Iraq, has told his wife he will not re-enlist when his obligation ends next year. He's angry that when his wife, Wendy, suffered a miscarriage recently, his unit refused to grant him an emergency leave.
"I'm definitely getting out," he wrote his wife. "To heck with the Army." "He hates it and he's not re-enlisting," said Wendy from her home on a military base at Fort Hood, Texas. "He basically has given up."