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Army Forcing Reenlistment, Soldiers Say

Times Staff Writer

A number of soldiers at this Army base near Colorado Springs say they are being pressured to reenlist or be sent to Iraq.

The allegations, which the Army denies, have sparked calls for a congressional investigation and have left the military scrambling to fend off accusations that they were trying to make up for troop shortages through coercion.

“Soldiers are being told if they don’t reenlist they will be reassigned to divisions going to Iraq,” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), whose office has received numerous calls from worried soldiers and their families. “This is just wrong. It’s not the way we do things in this country.”

The lawmaker said she had also been contacted by soldiers stationed at Ft. Hood in Texas and Ft. Lewis in Washington state expressing similar concerns. Officials at both bases said they had had no reports of such complaints. DeGette has asked the House Armed Services Committee to look into the matter.

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At Ft. Carson, soldiers about midway through their tours were asked to sign forms indicating whether they planned to reenlist. Soldiers said those who didn’t sign were told they could be transferred to where they were needed most -- and many believed that meant Iraq. Those who reenlisted would stay with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, which might not be deployed.

“What the Army is doing is trying to find out if it has a problem or if it’s healthy,” said Lt. Col. Gerard Healy, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon. “You need to ask how many folks will reenlist. If we find out a lot of people aren’t reenlisting, we need to fill the shortfalls. The question is what if the soldiers don’t reenlist? They could stay with their unit until their time expires or they could go to another unit that may or may not go to Iraq.”

Healy said it would be highly unusual for the Army to coerce people into staying and that was something he wouldn’t condone.

“I think the problem is that some folks don’t understand the situation,” he said.

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A soldier who recently returned from Iraq took issue with that. “I didn’t misunderstand anything,” said the Ft. Carson sergeant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“It was as blatant as you can get without a direct threat. They said if we didn’t reenlist we would be put in a pool of soldiers who would be deployed to Iraq,” the sergeant said. “They used the old selling technique of fear, uncertainty and doubt. If we stayed we got to be with the people we knew and might not go back to Iraq any time soon, but if we didn’t reenlist, our life would be uncertain.”

Spc. Wes Swanson, 23, spent a year in Balad, north of Baghdad, as a machine gunner. After he returned to Ft. Carson, his wife became pregnant. He said he was hoping to finish the last 18 months of his enlistment at the base.

“I was told I had to sign a declaration statement about whether I would reenlist,” he said. “I got the impression if I didn’t sign it, I would be transferred to another unit that was going to Iraq. A lot of guys felt pressured. No one wants to go back to Iraq unless they are single or need the money.”

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Many soldiers feared being “stop-lossed” -- sent to Iraq with a few months remaining on their enlistment only to serve a whole year.

“The Iraq war has been so mismanaged that we don’t have enough troops there, and the Army and National Guard are now short of their recruiting goals,” DeGette said. “We have National Guard troops who were told they would spend six months overseas and end up there for a year. If Bush is reelected he will have no choice but to come to Congress and ask for a draft.” (The president has said he opposes reinstituting the draft, which ended in 1973.)

Ft. Carson officials tried to clarify their reenlistment policy last week in a series of meetings with soldiers and the media. They denied coercing anyone and said the base had one of the highest reenlistment rates in the nation. This year 850 soldiers have reenlisted, with many pocketing a $10,000 bonus for their decision, they said.

Military leaders said they could never guarantee who would be deployed, but those with a year or less left on their tour were likely to stay put.

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“It’s Army policy not to move people with less than 12 months because it’s not cost effective,” said Lt. Col. Theresa Lever, who heads the personnel office at the base. “If they are to be deployed, they will be reviewed on a name-by-name, case-by-case basis.”

The Army is trying to build stronger units by keeping soldiers together for 36 months. They believe this will create camaraderie and continuity and make it easier on the families. At the same time, the Army wants to know who is staying and who is leaving.

“It’s like trying to build a football team,” said Lt. Col. David Johnson, spokesman for Ft. Carson. “You need to know where all your players are.”

Johnson said he had met with career counselors on the base and was convinced they were not pressuring people into reenlisting. At the same time, he stressed that uncertainty is a way of life in the military.

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“Our nation is at war and we are in the Army,” he said. “We are soldiers. Our job is to fight and win wars and do as we are told.”


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