Lutz AWOL woman sentenced 6 months
By BILL COATS
Published August 14, 2006
A young Lutz woman has received an unusually long sentence — six months’ confinement — for walking away from her Army duties.
“I was shocked,” said her attorney, Major Eva Clements, an Army lawyer for 10 years. “I’ve never seen such a harsh sentence on an AWOL.”
Tammy Turk, 26, was court-martialed Aug. 4 at Fort Campbell, Ky. for being absent without leave and received the sentence from a military judge. Although his decision must be reviewed by a higher officer, Turk has remained in jail since June 16, when Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies arrested her at her job at a Hess station in Tampa.
The sentence, minus credit for time already behind bars, means Turk is likely to spend up to two more months locked up.
More than 90 percent of soldiers labeled as deserters never face a court martial, according to Army spokesmen.
They negotiate a release rather than go to trial, and are out of the Army within a few weeks. And many who are tried receive an unfavorable discharge, but no further jail time.
Clements said all her pretrial efforts to obtain a release for Turk were turned down.
“Her company commander supported everything we tried to do,” Clements said. “The colonel level was where we ran into problems.”
Maj. Nathan Banks, an Army spokesman based at the Pentagon, said more soldiers, guardsmen and reservists seem to be going AWOL lately.
“We’ve seen some increase in going AWOL to avoid deploying to war, but this is usually resolved before it becomes a desertion issue, and in most cases is not resulting in incarceration,” Banks wrote in an e-mail to the Times.
War wasn’t an issue for Turk. She enlisted in the Army seven years ago, when America was at peace and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 were two years away.
But Turk joined in a period of uncertainty about her future. By the end of basic training, she was engaged to be married and resentful about her Army commitment. She quit twice, and was arrested twice.
After Turk pled guilty to AWOL earlier this month, she expected to be released. Clements asked that she be sentenced to time served.
Then Turk listened as the prosecutor, Capt. Christopher Day, requested the six months.
“He said it was to make me an example so that other people wouldn’t go AWOL,” Turk said Friday, from the Christian County Jail in Hopkinsville, Ky. That’s near Fort Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne to which Turk belonged.
Then she heard the judge’s decision.
“I was just pretty much in shock,” she said.
Day told the Times he could have prosecuted Turk for desertion, more serious than AWOL, and could have sought 18 months.
Clements said several factors worked against Turk, including two arrests in the last year when Turk could have turned herself in.
“If you turn yourself in voluntarily, it’s considered a mitigating circumstance,” Clements said. “If you have to be apprehended by civilian authorities, that’s an aggravating circumstance.”
In addition is the timing, Clements said. Turk faced trial as the 101st Airborne is returning to Fort Campbell from a year fighting in Iraq. The atmosphere at the fort is hardly tolerant of AWOL soldiers, Clements said.
And Turk drew a particularly stern judge, Lt. Col. Richard Anderson, Clements said. “He’s not very sympathetic to AWOLs.”
Day said Turk is to be sent by Wednesday to a Navy brig outside San Diego, one of the few brigs for women prisoners.
Turk had been AWOL for most of six years.
She had reported to Fort Campbell in 2000, as a new recruit in the 101st Airborne Division “Screaming Eagles.” But her new husband, Alex Martin, couldn’t live on base. So after a few weeks, the couple came home to Tampa.
“She did not hide from them,” said Turk’s mother, Sherry Turk of Tampa. “She was right out in the open.”
Turk had no criminal record. But last September, she was in the car when a friend was pulled over by a Pasco County sheriff’s deputy for an improper taillight. The deputy was citing Turk for not wearing a seatbelt when he noticed she was wanted as an Army deserter.
U.S. marshals flew Turk back to Fort Campbell last fall. She applied for a discharge, but was assigned in the interim to office work. The paperwork dragged into November.
Banks, the Army spokesman, said that has been a problem as Army officers cope with the demands of war at the expense of duties such as AWOL paperwork.
The Screaming Eagles were in Iraq. Turk thought the office seemed understaffed, and she was being stalled because she was needed. So she came home again.
“She thought her leaving was like quitting a job,” Clements said. “She didn’t realize it would come back to haunt her.”
Turk is resigned to more jail time.
Her mother, disabled and dependent on her daughter’s support, is outraged.
“Why’d they pick a person who had a spotless record and had a family and a life going?” Sherry Turk asked.
“That’s like picking on Bambi, for crying out loud.”