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When you were a kid back in grade school, did you ever pretend to be sick to get out of an assignment?

If so, that’s malingering. In general, malingering is an old-fashioned term for trying to get out of the job you’ve been assigned. While a small child might be forgiven for faking a bellyache to get out of gym class, the military takes malingering very seriously. If you stand accused of malingering, this is what you need to know.

What exactly is malingering?

There are specific criteria that have to be met to fit the military’s definition of malingering. In general, you have to either pretend you have an illness or injury for the express purpose of getting out of an assigned duty or intentionally injure yourself (through a deliberate act or an act of omission) in order to avoid that duty.

A classic example of malingering might be the soldier who shoots himself or herself in the foot in order to avoid actual combat with the enemy during wartime. Other examples might be pretending to have a mental illness, purposefully refusing to eat so that you are too weak to perform a specific job or pretending to have a back injury that limits your movement.

What are the consequences of malingering?

Malingering is treated harshly because it impacts the overall discipline and morale of a unit. A malingerer also puts everyone else in the unit at risk, since he or she can’t be considered trustworthy or relied upon to perform his or her duty.

If you’re found guilty of malingering, you face a year of confinement in a military prison and a dishonorable discharge. If you are found guilty of malingering while stationed in a hostile area or during war, the prison term will be three years.

If you’re preparing for a court-martial based on a malingering charge, or are simply under investigation, a consultation with a military law attorney can help you understand your options and navigate what follows.