8 Soldiers Challenge Policy of Extending Army Duty
By Esther Schrader, The Los Angeles Times,7 December 2004

Washington - Saying they were duped into enlisting in the armed forces without being told they could be prevented from leaving, eight soldiers filed a lawsuit Monday challenging a policy forcing them to serve in Iraq beyond their terms of enlistment.

"I served five months past my one-year obligation and I feel that it's time to let me go back to my wife," David Qualls, a specialist in the Arkansas National Guard, said at a news conference in Washington.

The suit is the latest legal challenge to the U.S. Army's "stop-loss policy" that has prevented thousands of soldiers from leaving the military when their volunteer service commitment is over.

Earlier, several California National Guard soldiers who received orders to report for duty took the policy to court individually. The suit filed Monday differed from the earlier legal challenges in that the soldiers were on active duty in Iraq.

Under the stop-loss program, the Army can extend enlistments during war or national emergencies. The policy was used before, in the buildup to the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

But the policy is based on a federal statute that was not included in contracts signed by the soldiers when they enlisted. The lawsuit contends that that makes the policy a breach of contract because it extends soldiers' length of service without their consent.

"This was fraudulent enlistment, and the fact that the Pentagon is seeking to enforce this is somewhat shocking," said Jeffrey Fogel, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a liberal-leaning civil rights group based in New York assisting the eight soldiers in their lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington.

Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, an Army spokesman, said the Pentagon had not reviewed the lawsuit and would not comment. But he defended the policy of extending tours of duty, saying it was needed for cohesiveness and continuity. "The alternative is people start leaving that unit in the middle of a tour," he said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan, asked at a briefing about the lawsuit, said that military conflict necessitates sacrifices by enlistees.

"We are a nation that remains at war," McClellan said. "We're at war against terrorism. It's important that we win this war. We appreciate the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform. And these are difficult issues sometimes that the Department of Defense has to work to address."

Qualls, the only plaintiff publicly identified, is home on leave. The other seven are now serving in Iraq or are in Kuwait en route to Iraq.

The soldiers sued Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and other senior military officials in federal court, asking to be immediately released from military service because they had served out their contracts.

Qualls and two other plaintiffs enlisted under so-called Try One contracts that allow veterans to serve for one year before committing to full enlistment. Qualls said that when his contract expired a year later, he was told he could not return home from Iraq, where he had served nine months, to his wife and daughter in Arkansas.

Four others are serving under multiyear contracts that also have run out. The remaining soldier's contract doesn't expire until spring, but he has been told to expect to serve in Iraq beyond the expiration date.

"What it boils down to in my opinion is a question of fairness," Qualls, 35, said.