Army Stops Many Soldiers From Quitting
By Lee Hockstader
The Washington Post
Monday 29 December 2003

Chief Warrant Officer Ronald Eagle, an expert on enemy targeting, served 20 years in the military -- 10 years of active duty in the Air Force, another 10 in the West Virginia National Guard. Then he decided enough was enough. He owned a promising new aircraft-maintenance business, and it needed his attention. His retirement date was set for last February.

Staff Sgt. Justin Fontaine, a generator mechanic, enrolled in the Massachusetts National Guard out of high school and served nearly nine years. In preparation for his exit date last March, he turned in his field gear -- his rucksack and web belt, his uniforms and canteen.

Staff Sgt. Peter G. Costas, an interrogator in an intelligence unit, joined the Army Reserve in 1991, extended his enlistment in 1999 and then re-upped for three years in 2000. Costas, a U.S. Border Patrol officer in Texas, was due to retire from the reserves in last May. 

According to their contracts, expectations and desires, all three soldiers should have been civilians by now. But Fontaine and Costas are currently serving in Iraq, and Eagle has just been deployed. On their Army paychecks, the expiration date of their military service is now listed sometime after 2030 -- the payroll computer's way of saying, "Who knows?"

The three are among thousands of soldiers forbidden to leave military service under the Army's "stop-loss" orders, intended to stanch the seepage of troops, through retirement and discharge, from a military stretched thin by its burgeoning overseas missions. 

"It reflects the fact that the military is too small, which nobody wants to admit," said Charles Moskos of Northwestern University, a leading military sociologist.

To the Pentagon, stop-loss orders are a finger in the dike -- a tool to halt the hemorrhage of personnel, and maximize cohesion and experience, for units in the field in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Through a series of stop-loss orders, the Army alone has blocked the possible retirements and departures of more than 40,000 soldiers, about 16,000 of them National Guard and reserve members who were eligible to leave the service this year. Hundreds more in the Air Force, Navy and Marines were briefly blocked from retiring or departing the military at some point this year.

By prohibiting soldiers and officers from leaving the service at retirement or the expiration of their contracts, military leaders have breached the Army's manpower limit of 480,000 troops, a ceiling set by Congress. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, disclosed that the number of active-duty soldiers has crept over the congressionally authorized maximum by 20,000 and now registered 500,000 as a result of stop-loss orders. Several lawmakers questioned the legality of exceeding the limit by so much.

"Our goal is, we want to have units that are stabilized all the way down from the lowest squad up through the headquarters elements," said Brig. Gen. Howard B. Bromberg, director of enlisted personnel management in the Army's Human Resources Command. "Stop-loss allows us to do that. When a unit deploys, it deploys, trains and does its missions with the same soldiers."

In a recent profile of an Army infantry battalion deployed in Kuwait and on its way to Iraq, the commander, Lt. Col. Karl Reed, told the Army Times he could have lost a quarter of his unit in the coming year had it not been for the stop-loss order. "And that means a new 25 percent," Reed told the Army Times. "I would have had to train them and prepare them to go on the line. Given where we are, it will be a 24-hour combat operation; therefore it's very difficult to bring new folks in and integrate them."

To many of the soldiers whose retirements and departures are on ice, however, stop-loss is an inconvenience, a hardship and, in some cases, a personal disaster. Some are resigned to fulfilling what they consider their patriotic duty. Others are livid, insisting they have fallen victim to a policy that amounts to an unannounced, unheralded draft.

"I'm furious. I'm aggravated. I feel violated. I feel used," said Eagle, 42, the targeting officer, who has just shipped to Iraq with his field artillery unit for what is likely to be a yearlong tour of duty. He had voluntarily postponed his retirement at his commander's request early this year and then suddenly found himself stuck in the service under a stop-loss order this fall. Eagle said he fears his fledgling business in West Virginia may not survive his lengthy absence. His unexpected extension in the Army will slash his annual income by about $45,000, he said. And some members of his family, including his recently widowed sister, whose three teenage sons are close to Eagle, are bitterly opposed to his leaving.

"An enlistment contract has two parties, yet only the government is allowed to violate the contract; I am not," said Costas, 42, who signed an e-mail from Iraq this month "Chained in Iraq," an allusion to the fact that he and his fellow reservists remained in Baghdad after the active-duty unit into which they were transferred last spring went home. He has now been told that he will be home late next June, more than a year after his contractual departure date. "Unfair. I would not say it's a draft per se, but it's clearly a breach of contract. I will not reenlist."

Other soldiers retained by the Army under stop-loss are more resigned than irate, but no less demoralized by what some have come to regard as their involuntary servitude.

"Unfortunately, I signed the dotted line saying I'm going to serve my country," said Fontaine, 27, the mechanic, who said he spent "20 or 30 days" fruitlessly researching legal ways that he could quit the Army when his contractual departure date came up in February. "All I can do is suck it up and take it till I can get out."

The military's interest in halting the depletion of its ranks predates the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. American GIs in World War II were under orders to serve until the fighting was finished, plus six months.

Congress approved the authority for what became known as stop-loss orders after the Vietnam War, responding to concerns that the military had been hamstrung by the out-rotations of seasoned combat soldiers in Indochina. But the authority was not used until the buildup to the Persian Gulf War in 1990 when Richard B. Cheney, then the secretary of defense, allowed the military services to bar most retirements and prolong enlistments indefinitely.

A flurry of stop-loss orders was issued after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, intensifying as the nation prepared for war in Iraq early this year. Some of the orders have applied to soldiers, sailors and airmen in specific skill categories -- military police, for example, and ordnance control specialists, have been in particular demand in Iraq.

Other edicts have been more sweeping, such as the Army's most recent stop-loss order, issued Nov. 13, covering thousands of active-duty soldiers whose units are scheduled for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan in the coming months. Because the stop-loss order begins 90 days before deployment and lasts for 90 days after a return home, those troops will be prohibited from retiring or leaving the Army at the expiration of their contracts until the spring of 2005, at the earliest.

The proliferation of stop-loss orders has bred confusion and resentment even as it has helped preserve what the military calls "unit cohesion." In the past two years, the Army alone has announced 11 stop-loss orders -- an average of one every nine or 10 weeks.

Often in the past year, the Army has allowed active-duty soldiers to retire and depart but not Guard and reserve troops, many of whom have chafed at the disparity in policies. Some Guard troops and reservists complain their release dates have been extended several times and they no longer know when they will be allowed to leave.

"We don't ever trust anything we're told," said Chris Walsh of Southington, Conn., whose wife, Jessica, an eighth-grade English teacher, is a military police officer in a National Guard unit in Baghdad. She may end up serving nearly two years beyond her original exit date of July 2002, Chris Walsh said. "We've been disappointed too many times."

For many soldiers who had planned on leaving the military, the sudden change of plans has been jarring.

Jim Montgomery's story is typical. Montgomery, an air-conditioning repairman in western Massachusetts, did a three-year hitch in the Army in the '90s and then signed up for a five-year stint in the National Guard. His exit date was July 31, 2003, after which he planned to devote himself to getting his electrician's license -- and to the baby he and his wife, Donna, expected in November, their first.

"I felt like I'd honored my contract," said Montgomery, 35, a beefy, affable man who holds the rank of specialist E4 in the Guard. "The military had given me some good things -- friendships and the opportunity to take some college courses -- and that's where I wanted to leave it."

The Army had other plans. In March, Montgomery's maintenance unit was sent for training to Fort Drum, N.Y. In April it deployed to Kuwait, and since May it has been stationed in southern Iraq. With each move, it became clearer to Montgomery that his July exit date from the Guard would not materialize. The latest he has heard is that the unit may be coming home in April, but even that is uncertain, he said.

Last month Montgomery rushed home on a medical emergency when Donna had complications in childbirth. She and the baby are fine now, but Montgomery is frustrated by his cloudy future.

"Some guys who are Vietnam vets are with us," he said in an interview at his home in Holland, Mass., shortly before he was to return to his unit in Iraq. "They said even in Vietnam, as difficult as it was there, you knew from the time you hit the ground to the time you returned it was one year -- whereas with this it's really up in the air."

Some military officials have acknowledged that stop-loss is a necessary evil. When the Air Force announced it was imposing a stop-loss rule last spring, an official news bulletin from Air Force Print News noted: "Both the secretary [James G. Roche] and the chief of staff [Gen. John P. Jumper] are acutely aware that the Air Force is an all-volunteer force and that this action, while essential to meeting the service's worldwide obligations, is inconsistent with the fundamental principles of voluntary service."

More frequently, the military response to griping about stop-loss is bluntly unsympathetic. "We're all soldiers. We go where were told," said Maj. Steve Stover, an Army spokesman. "Fair has nothing to do with it."

Washington Post staff writer Bradley Graham contributed to this report.

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