Struggling to stretch its limited ranks, the U.S. Army said Wednesday that thousands of soldiers who were scheduled to leave the military will be ordered to stay if their units are being sent to Iraq or Afghanistan.
The move imposes what the Army calls “stop-loss orders” on all units being deployed on missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such orders prevent active-duty soldiers and reservists from retiring or leaving their units from 90 days before they deploy until 90 days after they return -- even if their volunteer commitments to the military end before then.
Army officials could not say precisely how many soldiers are affected, since the orders will be in place for an indefinite period of time and will apply to units that have not yet been mobilized. But in the absence of a stop-loss program, an average division of 20,000 would have to replace 25% of its troops before or during a deployment to remain at full strength.
Wednesday’s announcement marked the broadest effort by the Pentagon to help meet U.S. commitments abroad by preventing soldiers from leaving the military. It comes on the heels of extended tours of duty for troops already in Iraq as well as orders that thousands of soldiers who have fought in the war return to the country, and is likely to inflame tensions in the ranks and among military families.
“People ought to be aware that we are extracting more service involuntarily out of the people who have already served,” said Steve Strobridge, director of government relations for the Military Officers Assn. of America, which has 375,000 members, mostly retired. “It’s a pretty good indication that someone didn’t do their planning that well.”
But while Army officials acknowledged that the program was “a finger in the dike,” as one senior officer said Wednesday, they said they had no choice but to gamble that they could keep soldiers in service now without triggering a backlash that would lead to an exodus later.
“I don’t think there’s a question that here in the near term that the United States Army, active and reserved, is stretched,” said Lt. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck, the Army’s personnel chief.
But Hagenbeck, speaking at a meeting where he unveiled the plans, rejected suggestions that the orders betrayed the trust of soldiers in the volunteer military.
“I don’t regard that as a breach of trust,” Hagenbeck said. “I’d regard that as being a soldier in the United States Army, and this is what we do.”
Hagenbeck said the orders were open-ended and could be in place for several years while the Army reorganizes itself into smaller, more-interchangeable units. They will apply to members of units being deployed outside the United States. Members of units that are deployed within the United States as part of the Iraq or Afghanistan operations may still leave the military, as may members of units that have not been mobilized.
Under the orders, members of units within 90 days of deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan may not be discharged, even if they were due to be discharged before shipping out. Those members would not be allowed to leave the Army until 90 days after their return from the deployment.
The Army has undertaken a series of recent measures to satisfy the personnel demands being imposed by the extended overseas conflicts.
Last week, a unit that for decades has had the job of preparing other deploying units at one of the Army’s two elite training centers, the 1st Battalion of the 509th Parachute Infantry at Ft. Polk, La., was told that more than half of its soldiers would be sent to combat. It is the first combat deployment for the unit since World War II.
Army planners also are considering mobilizing its sister training unit, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment at the Army’s National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, Calif., Hagenbeck said Wednesday.
Last month, the 10th Mountain Division, which has already served once in Afghanistan and once in Iraq, got orders to deploy to Iraq again. In addition, a brigade of 3,600 troops based for decades in South Korea will be moved to Iraq.
In a further effort to bolster its numbers, the Army over the past year has called up about 5,000 members of the Individual Ready Reserve, a pool of veterans recently released from active duty, cadets at service academies and college students on military scholarships. The Ready Reserve, which is not required to continue training, is supposed to be called up only in a national emergency. Members of the reserve were last called up in small numbers in 1990, in preparation for the Persian Gulf War.
The use of the stop-loss program is particularly controversial within the military, where many soldiers have complained it amounts to a reinstitution of the draft.
“I’ve led troops for the past two years on the small unit level, and these are not guys who are unpatriotic in any way. They volunteered and in many cases have served multiple tours,” said Andrew Exum, 25, a former Army captain who served in a special operations unit in Iraq and Afghanistan and has written a book based on his experiences.
“We’re the ones who serve our country proudly and we’re happy to do so. But we’d like to be able to plan on doing something else,” Exum said. “There are a lot of guys who would just like to go to college, to start a family, and now their future plans are thrown into turmoil. These are the guys who are not going to say no to old Uncle Sam.”
Reaction was swift in Congress. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), warning the move would have “a detrimental impact” on morale, said he would offer an amendment to the defense authorization bill requiring 20,000 new Army troops.
“It is unfortunate that the administration has resisted attempts to be candid with the American people about the cost and length of this war and the commitments expected from the troops in the field and their families,” Reed said.
Stop-loss authority was first given to the military by Congress after the Vietnam War, when the Pentagon was desperate to fill its combat ranks. But it was not used until 1990, during the buildup to the Gulf War. Even then, troops were prevented from leaving for only six months, after which the order was lifted.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Army has repeatedly blocked certain soldiers in heavily used specialties from retiring or leaving. Directly after the terrorist attacks, stop-loss orders were issued for special operations soldiers, whose skills were at a premium in Afghanistan.
Another wave of the orders came as the Pentagon prepared for war in Iraq in early 2003, generally applying to troops whose skills were in high demand in Iraq -- military police and civil affairs specialists, for example.
Hagenbeck, though, denied that the newest stop-loss orders were a symptom of desperation. “It’s a stop-gap measure,” he said.
The U.S. expects to keep at least 138,000 troops in Iraq through 2005. The Pentagon’s original plan to cut the force to between 105,000 and 115,000 troops this month, before power was turned over to an interim Iraqi government, was shelved as an insurgency has resulted in unexpectedly high casualties.
Not only do the stop-loss orders boost the number of soldiers who can be sent to combat at one time, they increase the cohesion of deployed units by keeping together soldiers who have worked and trained together, Hagenbeck said. The stop-loss order applies only to the Army.
Cindy Williams, a research scientist in the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and editor of the book “Filling the Ranks: Transforming the U.S. Military Personnel System,” said that while the new orders were not expected to be popular, keeping units together could actually save lives in battle.
“In terms of military effectiveness, it’s a good idea. It’s really important to keep units together,” Williams said. “It’s also good from the point of view of the individual who serves. You don’t want to be the person who gets brought into the unit when fighting is heavy and be the person that people don’t trust yet.”