Army in retreat over 'stop loss'
Military told to limit unpopular policy
By Kirsten Scharnberg
Tribune national correspondent

June 3, 2007

As the U.S. moves into its fifth year in Iraq and escalates troop levels there, the Pentagon has kept combat units manned by forcing as many as 80,000 soldiers to stay in uniform and in war zones even after their enlistment obligations have been met or their retirement dates have passed.

The policy, known as "stop loss" and utilized more during the war in Iraq than ever before, has sparked such a spate of lawsuits and backlash in the ranks that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered all branches of the services to formulate plans to minimize use of the unpopular policy while still maintaining combat readiness.

The policy, practically speaking, means that a soldier who signs up for four years can expect to be held on the job five years or more if his unit is deploying. In addition, those who have completed 20 years of service—the time previously required for unquestioned retirement with full benefits—increasingly have seen their applications for retirement denied. And the vast majority of these troops find that stop loss means one thing: Instead of beginning new lives in the civilian world, they are headed back to Iraq for their second, third or even fourth combat tours, a practice critics say amounts to nothing less than an involuntary draft.

"I know a lot of people like to call it a 'back-door draft,' " said Suzanne Miller, a Jacksonville lawyer whose son expects to be stop lossed this summer. "I like even more to call it indentured servitude. It's the perfect analogy: You have no control over your own destiny and are being forced, under threat of prison, to work for an employer you no longer want to work for."

The Army—by far the biggest user of the provision, with more than 8,700 soldiers currently "stop lossed"—says it is attempting to cut its dependence on stop loss by implementing a policy of shifting soldiers into combat units only if they have three years of enlistment remaining. Those three years will include two years at home and one year deployed.

"It won't end stop loss, but it will dramatically reduce it," said Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, spokesman for the Army's deputy chief of staff for manpower and personnel.

Indeed, ending the military's reliance on stop loss—a policy implemented after the Vietnam War to ensure that the new all-volunteer force could prevent troops from leaving in the event of war—will be an uphill battle.

The sheer numbers of troops who have been placed on the status since the war in Iraq began shows how integral the policy has been to keeping troop levels sufficient for the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan: an estimated 34,000 active-duty soldiers, 4,000 Marines; tens of thousands of National Guard and Reserve forces; and as many as 6,000 Air Force and Navy personnel. (Branches other than the Army have not used stop loss since the early phase of the Iraq war, according to Pentagon spokesman Maj. Stewart Upton. Because the policy is still available, however, Gates has asked all branches for a plan on how to maintain combat readiness without leaning on stop loss in the future.)

"I'd say the number [of Army troops] stop lossed could be 80,000," Hilferty said, noting that the Army does not keep precise numbers. He further said the actual count of soldiers kept on the job could be higher because estimates do not factor in officers, who do not have specified enlistment terms beyond their first years of service but who are often denied exit from the military if their units are scheduled to deploy.

Unpopular policy
Virtually no one likes the policy—the troops, their families, even the brass.

Miller's son Spec. Matthew Beard is a soldier with the 3rd Infantry Division. He expects to be sent for a second Iraq tour about the same time he had expected to be getting out and beginning college. "I don't think it's my duty anymore," he said. "I went the first time, but now my time is supposed to be up."

A spokeswoman for the Army agreed. "This isn't the first choice for us, but it's what we need to do right now to maintain combat readiness," said Maj. Anne Edgecomb. "But in a perfect world, if someone has finished their enlistment time or they're supposed to retire, we'd like for that to be able to happen."

Stop loss is a caveat included in the fine print of every enlistment contract. "In the event of war," all contracts read, "my enlistment in the Armed Forces continues until six months after the war ends, unless my enlistment is ended sooner by the president of the United States."

Frustrated troops, lawyers who defend them and military watchdogs assert that most enlistees—young men and women looking for economic opportunity or compelled by deep patriotism during a time of war — do not read all the fine print of the contract they are signing. These critics say the provisions of stop loss should be explained in detail to every enlistee, particularly when it is suddenly being used on such a scale after years of never being implemented at all.

"These kids are 18 years old in many cases," said J.E. McNeil, executive director of the Center on Conscience and War. "Most 55-year-olds don't read the fine print of half the things they sign."

Jules Lobel, the vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights who has filed unsuccessful lawsuits against the federal government on behalf of stop-lossed troops, goes so far as to assert that "the vast majority" of stop-lossed soldiers who call him for legal advice say they "had never heard of stop loss until it happened to them." Lobel further contends that when he requested original copies of several of his clients' enlistment contracts, some were missing the page which includes the clause detailing stop loss.

Courts uphold stop loss
Yet courts have universally found stop loss to be legal. Federal judges across the U.S. have ruled that enlistment contracts clearly state a person's service may be lengthened in the event of war and that the responsibility for failing to understand such a provision lies on the shoulders of the one signing on the dotted line.

All agree that being compelled to stay in military uniform today is far different than being contractually obligated to stay in virtually any other profession.

Sgt. Will Glass, for example, would have completed the four years he signed up for shortly after he began a second tour to Iraq in December 2005. Glass, 23, was stop lossed and kept with his unit in Iraq, where six months after he had expected to use the GI Bill to begin college, he was struck by a roadside bomb. His face and hands were scorched beyond recognition and his brain forever damaged.

"My husband signed up for four years thinking that really meant four years. If it had, he wouldn't be where he is today," said Amelia Glass, 21, as she waited for her husband to finish his afternoon physical therapy session.

The outcome was worse for Sgt. Steven Packer. Though his enlistment commitment was over, he was stop lossed and sent back to Iraq for a third tour last summer. He was killed by an improvised explosive device last month.

Even the biggest critics of stop loss admit the policy was originally based on a sound rationale. Stop loss was conceptualized as way of keeping the military from repeating the mistakes of Vietnam, when units had no continuity because troops were constantly rotating in and out based on when they completed their year of service. Stop loss guarantees that units that train together are deployed together, making them far more effective and cohesive fighting forces.

But because so many men and women are being forced to serve multiple tours, critics say the policy goes too far.

"You've got a lot of guys who were more than willing to serve once or even twice," McNeil said. "But third and fourth tours when they have already fulfilled their enlistment commitment?"

Miller, the soldier's mother, has launched the Web site A Republican who initially supported the war, Miller now worries that stop loss will have disastrous consequences on the armed forces' ability to recruit in coming years—even as the U.S. faces growing threats from international terror groups and nations such as North Korea and Iran.

"Once Americans—and particularly the population who are considering enlisting—fully understand stop loss, recruitment numbers are going to plummet," she said. "No one wants to sign what amounts to an open-ended contract."

One of the most controversial uses of stop loss involves the military's "Try One" program. Try One is a National Guard initiative that allows veterans to give the Guard a one-year trial run. But Lobel, of the U.S. Center for Constitutional Rights, says even Try One enlistees are now finding themselves stop lossed.

"The program is getting a new name," he quipped. "Instead of 'Try One,' it's 'Try One, Get One Free.' "

'Training will kick in'
Stop-lossed soldiers like Beard admit their personal morale may be low over their status. But they, and those who know the military well, say that embittered or disenfranchised individual soldiers don't automatically equate to less motivated combat units.

"What the military counts on—and usually with good reason—is that when the bullets start flying, the training will kick in," McNeil said. "Even if these guys are angry that they're over there, even if they believe it's dead wrong, they are going to revert to their training to try to get themselves and the guy standing next to them home."