Stop-Loss, an Army about-face
Luis Prosper has spent 24 years in the Army, reached the highest rank given to a non-commissioned officer — sergeant major — and was awarded a Bronze Star for heroism in Iraq.
Now he wants to leave.
“I think I’ve earned my retirement,” said Prosper, 41, a member of Georgia-based 3rd Infantry Division, which returned from more than a year’s combat in Iraq last August and recently was told it will be sent back. “But I can’t get out.”
That’s because of “Stop-Loss,” a Pentagon policy announced in June. The program, which applies only to the Army, prohibits soldiers from retiring or leaving the military three months before their unit is deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. It also keeps them in place for three months after their unit’s return.
Shortly after Stop-Loss was announced, Sen. John Kerry called the policy a “back-door draft,” a charge the Democratic presidential nominee repeated last month in his acceptance speech at the party’s national convention. Kerry’s criticism was echoed by Sen. John McCain (R- Ariz.), who described the policy as “just another way of drafting people.”
Stop-Loss could force thousands of soldiers to remain in uniform for a year or more after their contracts expire. As a result, many frustrated and angry people would have to put lives on hold. “This is a time bomb,” said a Defense Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “And, like so much else the administration has done in connection with Iraq, it could produce some very bad results.”
Like the predicament facing one Long Islander, who insisted on anonymity for fear of retribution from Army officials. After completing three years’ active duty and returning to civilian life, this man, in his mid-20s, signed a one-year contract with the 69th Infantry Regiment — the “Fighting 69th” — a recently activated reserve unit in the New York National Guard.
Because his contract ended on June 4, two days after Stop-Loss was announced, the Long Islander had to remain with the unit, now training in Texas for deployment to Iraq in the fall. “It’s unfair,” said the soldier, a New York City policeman, who probably will not be allowed to leave the unit until late next year. “I did my job and fulfilled my duty. But the government has reneged on its contract.”
Lt. Gen. Franklin Hagenbeck, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, rejected that accusation. “I don’t regard it as a breach of trust,” he recently told reporters, referring to the assertion. “I regard that as being a soldier in the United States Army. This is what we do.”
Though troop numbers currently affected by Stop-Loss are not known because soldiers’ personal military contracts are private, the actual number probably is low, as is public awareness of it. But both elements are likely to grow as more contracts expire daily and the new rules remain unchanged.
Stop-Loss rules previously applied only to troops already in Iraq or Afghanistan. But the newly expanded program, along with the recent recall of 5,600 soldiers who had completed active duty and returned to civilian life, has been defended by Pentagon and Bush administration officials as a distasteful but necessary means of maintaining unit cohesion and bolstering a temporarily overextended Army.
A major underlying reason for the overextension, Pentagon authorities point out, involves post-Cold War reductions that have trimmed the Army, which now has approximately 500,000 troops on active duty — about half its size 15 years ago. The problem stems, analysts note, from fierce pressures of fighting two wars simultaneously in Iraq and Afghanistan — where a total of about 158,000 troops have been deployed — while maintaining force commitments in South Korea and Germany (with about 40,000 and 70,000 troops respectively). Adding to the problem, critics claim, have been Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s plans to make U.S. forces leaner and more mobile.
To ease manpower strain, Bush yesterday announced plans to redeploy 60,000 to 70,000 troops from Europe and Asia — most of whom will be based in the United States.
Nevertheless, Congress believes the force overextension problem must be resolved with a major personnel increase.
The Senate, for example, has voted for bolstering Army ranks with an additional 20,000 troops next year; the House calls for a 30,000 increase over the next three years. A compromise measure will probably be reached at a joint conference in the fall. Kerry, for his part, has pledged to recruit an additional 40,000 troops if he is elected.
But military officials have staunchly resisted mandated force increases. Such increases, they insist, would drain millions of dollars needed for technological development. They note, moreover, it will take at least a year to recruit, train and field additional troops — while the need for more soldiers is immediate.
So a practical answer, according to the Pentagon, lies in its present policy of stopgap measures to meet present needs that, hopefully, are limited in term.
Military authorities — who claim current recruitment and retention rates are satisfactory — also reject the idea of reinstating the draft, insisting all-volunteer forces are fine. Administration officials acknowledge a draft would be politically unpopular and insist there are no plans to reinstate it.
The 5,600 recalled soldiers affected by the other new Army measure belong to the 111,000-member Individual Ready Reserve. Although honorably discharged, they served less than the eight years’ active duty stipulated in their volunteer contracts. They were automatically enrolled in the IRR and, despite their new civilian status, they were left with still-unfulfilled military obligations. Their recall, the first large-scale activation of Ready Reserve since the 1991 Gulf War, “is nothing new or unusual,” said Lt. Col. Pamela Hart, a Pentagon spokeswoman, who described the measure as “a management tool we’ve always had available to augment our forces.”
All recalls, Pentagon officials stress, are based on the soldiers’ skills — such as medical, mechanical, technological or administrative specialties.
Despite officials’ explanations, the new programs have been criticized by servicemen, military analysts and leading politicians. Some critics also cite them as evidence of the Bush administration’s lack of foresight and competence.
Criticisms and politics aside, the primary burden is borne by the soldiers.
Sgt. Maj. Prosper, for example, noted that he first thought of leaving the Army early in 2001. In fact, he purchased a Florida home at that point for his wife and two children, then sought and was promised a job in a county sheriff’s office.
However, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks changed his thinking.
“As much as I loved my family and was ready for a new life,” he explained, “I was a soldier first and foremost. I felt I couldn’t leave the Army when my country needed me.”
But now, after going to Iraq, seeing 13 men in his company killed and dozens of others wounded, earning a Bronze Star and being made top sergeant, Prosper really wants to leave.
“Yet I can’t,” said the veteran, who doesn’t fear retribution because his superiors have long known about his wishes. “I’m in limbo because of the Stop-Loss program.”
Other politicians, in addition to Kerry and McCain, have seized on his complaint.
For example, Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the recall of IRR members is a “de facto draft.”
“These people did everything the military asked of them and were free to go,” Israel said in a recent interview about the reactivated soldiers. “Now they have to be literally hunted down and yanked from their civilian careers to go back to Iraq. I think that’s disgraceful.”
He added: “While the recall may be legally legitimate, it’s entirely another matter in moral terms.”
Also critical of the new Stop-Loss program is Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who in late June sought unsuccessfully to introduce a legislative amendment providing soldiers with a $2,000 bonus for every additional month they are forced to serve beyond their contract.
“I am outraged by the Pentagon’s action,” the veteran New Jersey senator said recently about his proposal, which he tried to attach to the Senate’s Defense Appropriations Bill for fiscal year 2005.
“Even the program’s title is misleading,” Lautenberg asserted. “‘Stop-Loss’ is a stock market term. It provides no clue to the many serious personal problems it creates for soldiers. It also reflects the administration’s miscalculations and misunderstanding of the situation in Iraq — and its attempts to hide the painful truth.”
Criticism of the Army policy, moreover, has not been confined to Democrats.
“Insufficient force structure and manpower are leading the services to make decisions that I liken to eating the seed corn,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “That is, in order to make it through today, we do things that mortgage the future.”
Andrew Exum agrees.
A former captain who fought with the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan and with the Rangers in Iraq, Exum, 26, left the Army in late May — less than two weeks before the new program was implemented.
A native of Chattanooga, Tenn., Exum wrote the recently published “This Man’s Army,” which describes Afghanistan operations in noble tones. He called Stop-Loss “a gross breach of contract” and labeled the recall of IRR personnel an “involuntary mobilization.”
Both programs, he said, “place an unfair burden of sacrifice upon volunteer soldiers — many of them veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan — who already have made their share of sacrifice.”
Most Americans, he asserted, haven’t been asked to make any sacrifice.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find examples of how people’s lifestyles have been changed by these wars,” he said.
Exum’s views are shared by David Chasten, another combat veteran who also left the Army shortly before the new program was initiated.
“The administration had three choices to compensate for its mistakes,” said Chasten, 26, a former captain who served in Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division. “It could recruit more people, which would cost more money; it could draft them, which would also cost more money as well as a lot of political points; or it could simply screw the guys who volunteered in the first place.”
He added: “It obviously chose the third course, which is the cheapest way, and also is under the radar.”
But the Pentagon wouldn’t need its Stop-Loss policy, Israel pointed out, if the Bush administration had paid more attention to warnings that winning the war in Iraq would be easier than occupying it.
“The Shinseki incident symbolized this,” the congressman said. “The administration’s horrifically poor planning led it to believe that this could be done on the cheap. Shinseki told them otherwise, but they wouldn’t listen.” He was referring to testimony at a Senate hearing in February 2003 — several weeks before the Iraq war began — by Gen. Eric Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff.
Responding to a question, Shinseki, 61, a West Point graduate with 38 years’ military experience — including a year commanding peace-keeping forces in Bosnia — said “something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would be needed in post-war Iraq to maintain internal stability.
Two days later, testifying before a House committee, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who never served in the military, disparaged Shinseki’s assessment as “quite outlandish” and “wildly off the mark.”
Insisting that Iraq was not plagued by the ethnic strife that has characterized regional conflicts in the Balkans, Wolfowitz added: “It’s hard to conceive it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would to conduct the war itself.”
Wolfowitz’s views subsequently were echoed at a news conference by his boss.
Despite critics’ assertions that many more troops are needed there, Rumsfeld has limited American forces in Iraq to approximately 140,000. Total coalition forces, including 9,000 British troops, number about 165,000.
Rumsfeld believes those numbers are sufficient. “If commanders in the field want more troops,” he repeatedly has told reporters, “We will sign deployment orders so that they’ll have the troops they need.”
Iraqi troops are being trained to replace Americans fighting insurgents but administration officials are not certain how many will be needed, how many fielded and how well they will do. In the meantime, officials indicate Stop-Loss will remain as long as the problem does.
And families affected by the policy’s restrictions will continue to be frustrated.
“Whatever happens in terms of the larger picture, I would be very upset, to say the least, if my son is hurt in Iraq,” said the mother of the Long Islander forced to remain in the 69th Infantry Regiment. “It’s a crapshoot for anyone in the military, of course, but his odds have been skewed by government manipulation. He’s been put in double jeopardy.”