By Tom Vanden Brook |
The Army has accelerated its policy of involuntary extensions of duty to bolster its troop levels, despite Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ order last year to limit it, Pentagon records show.
Gates directed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the service secretaries to minimize mandatory tour extensions, known as “stop loss,” in January 2007. By May, the number of soldiers affected by the policy had dropped to a three-year low of 8,540.
Since then, the number of soldiers forced to remain in the Army rose 43% to 12,235 in March. The reliance on stop loss has increased as the military has sent more troops to Iraq and extended tours to 15 months to support an escalation in U.S. forces ordered by President Bush. The increase last month was driven by the need to send more National Guard soldiers to Iraq.
Soldiers affected by stop loss now serve, on average, an extra 6.6 months, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said. Key leaders at the small-unit level – sergeants through sergeants first class – make up 45% of those soldiers. Soldiers typically enlist for four-year stints.
“Secretary Gates understands the hardship stop loss poses to our troops and their families, but he also understands the need to maintain cohesive units on the battlefield throughout deployment,” Morrell said. “Troops who have trained together and fought together should remain together.”
The trend is alarming, said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who wrote a letter on April 17 to Gates urging him “in the strongest terms” to limit stop loss.
Last year, Shays and three other House members wrote Gates a similar letter saying they were concerned about using the policy to bolster forces for the so-called surge. It hurts morale, burdens troops’ families, damages the credibility of military leaders and threatens recruiting, they wrote.
Stop loss can keep a soldier in the service if his or her unit deploys within 90 days of the end of the soldier’s commitment. It is necessary, the Army says, to maintain the integrity of units headed to war. In all, 58,300 soldiers have been affected by stop loss since 2002, according to the Army. That’s about 1% of active duty, Reserve and National Guard troops. For the 3rd Infantry Division, which is responsible for a portion of Iraq south of Baghdad, about 1,500 of its 22,500 soldiers is serving under stop loss, according to Maj. Alayne Conway.
Shays said the nation needs a bigger Army. In the meantime, he urges the Pentagon to press more personnel from the Air Force and Navy into Army jobs.
PENTAGON MEMO:Army’s response to minimizing stop loss (pdf)
The policy shows the Army is “unraveling a bit” while “under tremendous strain,” said Rep. Joe Sestak, a Pennsylvania Democrat and retired vice admiral. Sestak, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said relying on stop loss could be masking problems the Army is having with recruiting.
“We don’t have the individual in terms of quality or quantity to take that next individual’s place so that he could finish his tour and go home,” Sestak said. “This is five years into the war. I don’t think this is insignificant.”
James Martin, a social work professor at Bryn Mawr College and retired Army colonel, said stop loss is the result of an Army that’s too small to meet its commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Sergeants are often most affected.
“These are the guys who bear the brunt of it,” Martin said. “They just get put back into the grinder continually.”
In January 2007, Gates wrote to secretaries of the services and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that included a directive to submit plans to “minimize the use of Stop Loss.” In reply, then-Army secretary Francis Harvey wrote that the Army would pay soldiers facing stop loss $300 extra per month “to extend their enlistment to complete their deployment.”
PENTAGON MEMO: Gates addresses stop loss (pdf)
Harvey wrote that the plan “could reduce the number of soldiers affected by (stop loss) by as much as 50%.” Soldiers who didn’t take the pay, he added, would still be subject to involuntary extension.
Lt. Gen. James Thurman, Pentagon deputy chief of staff for operations, said Monday he hoped the Army could put a stop to mandatory extensions by fall 2009.
Although some soldiers say they understand the reasons for stop loss, it doesn’t boost morale, said Robert Sauder, 24, a staff sergeant who was involuntarily retained in 2006 when he was preparing to leave the service. By then, he’d spent 13 months in Afghanistan. Then he spent 15 months in Iraq.
Sauder, of Baroda, Mich., said he “was pretty sour about the whole situation.”
Near Kirkuk, he and his comrades dodged rockets, mortars and roadside bombs. “It ended up pretty good for me and my guys. We made it back alive.”