Can Stop-Loss be Stopped?

CBS News

December 7, 2008 – The Pentagon announced plans this week to recruit more foreigners residing in the U.S. into the ranks of the U.S. military. At the same time, many of those who’ve served their tours in the armed forces are finding it difficult to leave because of a provision known as “Stop-Loss.”

On a cold December evening, some folks go caroling. Others hold anti-war vigils.

Every Wednesday night for the past two years, Anna Berlinrut has been out on this same New Jersey corner handing out fliers, talking about the war, and about stop-loss – a policy that’s keeping her son in Iraq this Christmas.

“Do you think the average American knows what stop-loss is?” Smith asked.

“No, they don’t, they really don’t,” Berlinrut said.

The term stop-loss refers to the policy of keeping combat units together, sometimes even after individual soldiers’ enlistments are up.

Right now, around 12,000 troops are under stop-loss orders.

“It is a necessary part of war, unfortunately,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a military analyst for the Heritage Foundation.

“Stop-loss allows a commander, in Iraq for example, to freeze in place a trained unit and deploy them as a team.”

“And the advantages of it are what?” asked Smith.

“It generally helps prevail in conflict and avoid the further loss of life,” said Eaglen, “because as a trained unit, this group has functioned together, they’ve lived together, they’ve fired weapons together, so they will in theory be a more effective fighting force.”

It’s all in the enlistment contract, the part that says, “In the event of war, my enlistment in the armed forces continues until six (6) months after the war ends.”

Are soldiers informed about this when they sign up?

(CBS)”Technically, it’s in the fine print of the enlistment contract,” said Eaglen, “but there’s no doubt the government can do a better job informing soldiers and their families verbally of this requirement because it’s obscure fine print.

“But most expect it not to be used, so most are surprised – understandably – when they’re told, ‘You can’t get out when you want to.'”

Stop-loss was the subject of a critically acclaimed (but little-seen) movie of the same name this year. The policy seems harsh, but it’s hardly a new idea.

In World Wars One and Two, military enlistments were for the duration of hostilities. But by the Vietnam era, combat veterans went home as soon as their hitch was up and were replaced by inexperienced troops which would often hurt a unit’s fighting effectiveness.

After Vietnam, a system was put in place to keep entire units together, and part of that plan was the stop-loss policy.

Anna Berlinrut’s son – a Marine sergeant on his third tour of Iraq – was supposed to be coming home in a few weeks. But now he’s been stop-lossed until April – or later.

Anna Berlinrut, whose son was stop-lossed back to IraqFor his family, including the newborn son he has yet to meet, the waiting really is the hardest part.

“Is there any way to explain what that’s like for you as a mom?” Smith asked.

“There was one time the doorbell rang,” Berlinhut said. “I opened it up, and it was a high school kid selling candy. I fell apart. I really did.”

“Because you thought – ?”

“I thought that maybe there would be a couple of Marines in dress uniform, waiting to tell me the worst.”

It’s not easy for military brass, either. In June, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike McMullen was asked, “Is there anything in the works about the stop-loss program being ended in the Army?”

“No,” he said. “Tough subject. I’d like to see stop-loss going away. I’d like to see stop-loss go away tomorrow if I could make it happen. Given the priorities that we have right now and the mission that we have, I don’t see it stopping in the near future.”

The policy also affects those who have left active duty: Army Reservist Colby Buzzell, a veteran of one combat tour in Iraq, was home and settling into civilian life in San Francisco when he got a letter from the Army telling him he was bound for Iraq … again.

“Imagine you went to college for four years,” Buzzell told Smith, “and you got out, got a job, got a house, had a lease, had bills, and all of a sudden you got a letter from your college saying, ‘Guess what? You didn’t graduate from college. You have to go back and do all the schooling you’d already done.

“It’s Russian roulette. Everyone that goes over there has at least one close call and sooner or later you either, you get killed or you miss limbs or, you know, something happens.”

Buzzell was recently diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his first tour in Iraq – and that has kept him from being deployed.

“I know that the stop-loss is their way of hanging onto those that they’ve invested in, those that have an expertise to serve,” said Vickie Castro. “I understand the concept. I don’t necessarily agree with it.”

Castro’s son Jonathan, an Army corporal, was stateside, his enlistment nearly up. But when his unit was ordered to Iraq in 2004, he was stop-lossed – and ordered to ship out with them.

(CBS)”His orders came down, and it didn’t matter that he was supposed to have been released from active duty,” said Castro. “His orders came down, and they froze him. And they deployed him with his unit in October when he was supposed to have been released in July of that year.”

Four days before Christmas, a suicide bomber walked into a mess tent where Corporal Jonathan Castro was having lunch with his squad.

“December the 21st, 2004, just past 8:00 at night, the military sent their officer to inform me that my only child was dead, that my only child had been killed in this suicide bombing in this mess tent,” Castro told Smith.

“I don’t know how long I screamed.”

“People, people tell me all the time, they say, ‘Well, but he volunteered.’ We have a volunteer military. We have a volunteer military. And that’s true. Jonathan did volunteer. But he had completed his commitment.”

There are signs that stop-loss might not last forever. Military recruiting and re-enlistment is up, thanks to the terrible civilian job market, and a bigger head count could eventually make stop-loss less necessary.

There are plans for a troop reduction in Iraq as well, though that might not help right away.

“Even if we pull troops out of Iraq, there’s a chance that stop-loss could continue?” Smith asked.

“That’s right,” said the Heritage Foundation’s Eaglen, “because if force levels drop in Iraq and rise in Afghanistan for example in a significant way, you’re looking at roughly the same potential number of forces needed, just in a different country and a different conflict. And that could ultimately keep the stop-loss in effect at this level for a while.”

“They’re just recycled over and over and over again until they’re totally used up,” she said.

“Do you feel like your son is getting used up?” Smith asked.

“I’m afraid that he might be,” she said. “I don’t think that he’s the same person that he was.”

So like most military moms, she’s praying her son is home – next Christmas.

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