Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced today the phased ending of the Army's use of its "stop-loss" policy, which extends soldiers' tours beyond the end of their enlistment contracts, and which critics have often called a "backdoor draft."
As of January, there are currently 13,200 soldiers continuing to serve in the Army beyond the tours of duty stated in their enlistment contracts. Gates announced a two-year timeline that will eliminate the ranks of soldiers currently serving in the Army under the policy by the spring of 2011.
"I believe it is important that we do everything possible to see that soldiers are not unnecessarily forced to stay in the Army beyond their end-of-term-of-service date," said Gates.
Beginning in August, the Army will stop extending soldiers beyond their enlistment dates so that the ranks of stop-loss soldiers are reduced by half by June 2010. The Army's goal is to totally eliminate the need for stop-loss by March 2011.
The military services have the legal power to involuntarily extend a soldier's service beyond the end of their enlistment contracts. In recent years, all military branches but the U.S. Army have been able to reduce the need to retain servicemen under the policy. Army officials have said the strain of maintaining the level of forces needed for Iraq and Afghanistan has forced them to continue using the policy.
Secretary Gates has been opposed to the use of stop-loss since he first came to the Pentagon in late 2006 and had asked the services to reduce its use.
"I believe that when somebody's end date of service comes, to hold them against their will, if you will, is just not the right thing to do, " he told reporters at a Pentagon briefing. "I felt, particularly in these numbers, that it was breaking faith."
In making the announcement, Gates acknowledged that the need for stop-loss may never totally go away, as it may be used "under extraordinary circumstances." But he expected that in the future, the numbers of those who might be affected would be in "scores not thousands."
Highly unpopular with military families, some critics have called stop-loss a backdoor draft because servicemen are forced to stay in the miltiary beyond their retirement or re-enlistment dates. However, the services have called it a means of maintaining unit cohesion in times of war and retaining soldiers who have important skills that might be needed in those units when they deploy overseas.
"The stop-loss policy has amounted to a backdoor draft during years of an overstretched, overextended military," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. "I applaud the president and Secretary Gates for ending a practice that has for too long abused the trust and tested the strength of our incredible military families."
Under the stop loss policy, a soldier can be required to continue serving if his or her unit is to deploy within 90 days of the end of the soldier's enlistment contract.
"Unit cohesion" is often cited as a primary factor because the unit's readiness might be affected if soldiers with key skills and training are allowed to leave the unit before it deployed.
Gates noted that when he took over as defense secretary, the Army had about 7,000 soldiers serving under stop loss. He attributed the rise in the numbers since then to "the surge" of additional combat troops into Iraq that began in early 2007.
Gates said he asked, "The surge brigades are out. ... Why isn't it coming down? Well, because the op tempo in Afghanistan was going up at the same time."
He said that was one reason why he gave the Army "some time to plan this."
He cited a faster-than-expected Army expansion, strong retention numbers and the drawdown in Iraq as enabling factors that will allow the Army to stop using stop loss.
One of the ways the Army will continue to eliminate the need for stop loss in the future will be by offering financial incentives to soldiers nearing the end of their enlistment contracts.
The Army Reserve will stop using stop loss this coming August by mobilizing units that don't include stop-loss soldiers and the Army National Guard will do the same in September.
Beginning in January 2010, the active duty Army will start deploying units without stop loss soldiers.
Gates also announced that the military would begin to make $500 monthly payments to servicemen forced to stay under stop-loss. Though Congress approved $72 million for such payments last fall, the Defense Department had not announced a payment schedule for the funds until today.
Gates announced that the payments would be retroactive to Oct. 1, 2008.