Soldiers will not be declared absent without leave until a search is conducted, an investigation is launched, and family or friends contacted under a new Army measure to track soldiers when they go missing.
Army leaders said Thursday they have spoken to commanders about the plan, which will designate a soldier as missing, rather than immediately as absent without leave, and will issue a written policy in the next two weeks to revitalize the urgency for finding soldiers who don't show up for physical training or work.
Rather than assume troops are absent without leave, units should be "talking about taking care of soldiers, talking about aggressively looking for them. That's the philosophy we want in the Army. We wouldn't leave soldiers behind in combat. We don't want to leave them behind in garrison," Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said Thursday during a media briefing with reporters.
The initiative follows a series of disappearances and deaths at Fort Hood, Texas, and elsewhere in which soldiers went missing but weren't found for weeks or even months.
Spc. Vanessa Guillen went missing in April; her body was found more than two months later. Her family has said she was being sexually harassed, and they have criticized the Army for not acting quickly enough to find her.
The suspect in the case, Army Spc. Aaron Robinson, died by suicide June 30, and his girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, has been charged as an accomplice.
At Fort Bliss, Texas, Pvt. Richard Halliday went missing July 24 and was listed as AWOL, but Army investigators believe he may have left the base earlier than reported. His parents said they didn't know their son was missing until more than a month later, when they called his unit.
His whereabouts are unknown.
Last year, Pvt. Gregory Wedel-Morales went missing; he was declared a deserter roughly a month later. His remains were found in a shallow grave not far from Fort Hood, where he was assigned.
Army officials told The Associated Press that suicides among active-duty soldiers are up 30% this year, to 114 as of Sept. 27 compared with 88 at the same time last year. Those deaths include Sgt. Elder Fernandes, who went missing from Fort Hood in mid-August and whose remains were found a week later.
The attorney for Fernandes' family said the soldier had been harassed and bullied after reporting a sexual assault by a superior. He had been hospitalized for behavioral health issues before he disappeared.
Army officials are directing leaders to reach out to families to get to know them "before something happens."
"The families may have a better idea of what's going on in the soldiers' lives ... so we can establish that relationship -- Mom, Dad, spouse can say, 'Hey, my son or daughter is having some issues. I need to get some help,' McConville said.
The service has not instructed leaders to investigate every AWOL case in the last "three to five years," McConville said. But, he added, if a family has concern about an AWOL soldier, the Army will assist them and work with law enforcement to try to locate that service member.
Commanders have always been able to decide how an investigation into a missing or AWOL person should proceed, and this policy will not alter that, officials said. The new emphasis is designed to establish a new "mindset" among leadership that forces them to pay attention rather than simply consider them AWOL and, by association, deserters or malingerers.
"And the policy we had in place was somewhat confusing for some of our commanders," McConville said. "But basically, what [the new policy] says is if a soldier is not present for duty or missing, they only become AWOL after a thorough investigation, thorough looking for the soldier, dealing with the family, dealing with law enforcement, so we can prove that they are absent without leave."