The U.S. Army has forced about 50,000 soldiers to continue serving
after their voluntary stints ended under a policy called "stop-loss,"
but while some dispute its fairness, court challenges have fallen flat.
The policy applies to soldiers in units due to deploy for the Iraq and Afghanistan
wars. The Army said stop-loss is vital to maintain units that are cohesive and
ready to fight. But some experts said it shows how badly the Army is stretched
and could further complicate efforts to attract new recruits.
"As the war in Iraq drags on, the Army is accumulating a collection of
problems that cumulatively could call into question the viability of an all-volunteer
force," said defense analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute
"When a service has to repeatedly resort to compelling the retention of
people who want to leave, you're edging away from the whole notion of volunteerism."
When soldiers enlist, they sign a contract to serve for a certain number of
years, and know precisely when their service obligation ends so they can return
to civilian life. But stop-loss allows the Army, mindful of having fully manned
units, to keep soldiers on the verge of leaving the military.
Under the policy, soldiers who normally would leave when their commitments
expire must remain in the Army, starting 90 days before their unit is scheduled
to depart, through the end of their deployment and up to another 90 days after
returning to their home base.
With yearlong tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, some soldiers can be forced to
stay in the Army an extra 18 months.
HARDSHIP FOR SOME SOLDIERS
Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, an Army spokesman, said that "there is no plan
to discontinue stop-loss."
"We understand that this is causing hardship for some individual soldiers,
and we take individual situations into consideration," Hilferty said.
Hilferty said there are about 12,500 soldiers in the regular Army, as well
as the part-time National Guard and Reserve, currently serving involuntarily
under the policy, and that about 50,000 have had their service extended since
the program began in 2002. An initial limited use of stop-loss was expanded
in subsequent years to affect many more.
"While the policies relative to the stop-loss seem harsh, in terms of
suspending scheduled separation dates (for leaving the Army), they are not absolute,"
Hilferty said. "And we take individual situations into consideration for
compelling and compassionate reasons."
Hilferty noted the Army has given "exceptions" to 210 enlisted soldiers
"due to personal hardship reasons" since October 2004, allowing them
to leave as scheduled.
"The nation is at war and we are stop-lossing units deploying to a combat
theater to ensure they mobilize, train, deploy, fight, redeploy and demobilize
as a team," he said.
NO LUCK IN COURT
A few soldiers have gone to court to challenge stop-loss.
One such case fizzled last week, when U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth in
Washington dismissed a suit filed in 2004 by two Army National Guard soldiers.
The suit claimed the Army fraudulently induced soldiers to enlist without specifying
that their service might be involuntarily extended.
Courts also have backed the policy's legality in Oregon and California cases.
Jules Lobel, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who represented the National
Guard soldiers, said a successful challenge to stop-loss was still possible.
"I think the whole stop-loss program is a misrepresentation to people
of how long they're going to actually serve. I think it's caused tremendous
morale problems, tremendous psychological damage to people," Lobel said.
"When you sign up for the military, you're saying, 'I'll give you, say,
six years and then after six years I get my life back.' And they're saying,
'No, really, we can extend you indefinitely.'"
Congressional critics have assailed stop-loss, and 2004 Democratic presidential
nominee John Kerry called it "a back-door draft." The United States
abolished the draft in 1973, but the all-volunteer military never before has
been tested by a protracted war.
A report commissioned by the Pentagon called stop-loss a "short-term fix"
enabling the Army to meet ongoing troop deployment requirements, but said such
policies "risk breaking the force as recruitment and retention problems
mount." It was written by Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer.
Thompson added, "The persistent use of stop-loss underscores the fact
that the war-fighting burden is being carried by a handful of soldiers while
the vast majority of citizens incur no sacrifice at all."