updated 1/5/2004 6:48:17 PM ET 2004-01-05T23:48:17

About 7,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan who were planning to retire or otherwise leave the service in the next few months are getting new marching orders: Stay put.

The Army is expanding what it calls a “stop loss” order to keep soldiers in uniform — even those who have met their contractual service obligation or are scheduled to retire — during a rotation of tens of thousands of troops that begins this month and is scheduled to finish in May.

Col. Elton Manske, chief of the Army’s enlisted division, said Monday that the move was deemed necessary to maintain the cohesion and combat effectiveness of units now operating in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He did not explain why the Army could not manage the readiness of its forces in Iraq and Afghanistan without forcing soldiers to stay in the service beyond their scheduled retirement or enlistment periods. Critics say it is because the Army has too few soldiers and too many overseas commitments.

The order affects all Army units scheduled to return from Iraq, Kuwait or Afghanistan in coming months. Soldiers will be required to remain with their unit until it gets to its home base and for a maximum of 90 days afterward, he said. The order mirrors one already in place for the units that are scheduled to deploy to those three countries to replace the units there now.

Manske said the Army was also using a more common management tool to keep soldiers in uniform: It is offering bonuses of up to $10,000 for soldiers in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan who are willing to re-enlist for three years or more, regardless of their military specialty.

The bonus program took effect Jan. 1-2. The expanded “stop loss” order has yet to be implemented. Manske said it was expected to take effect “within days,” but he had no specific date.

Soldiers reluctant to stay
The use of “stop loss” reflects the difficulty the Army is having in keeping enough soldiers available to meet the Army’s worldwide commitments.

Before the war in Iraq, “stop loss” authority had rarely been used; it is seen by many as being in conflict with the principle of an all-volunteer military in which enlisted personnel sign contracts for a specific period of service. It was first used in the 1991 Gulf War.

Temporarily prohibiting soldiers from retiring or quitting when their enlistment is up can be a hardship for those who had made plans to leave the service, but it does not extend their unit’s stay in Iraq.

The order also prevents soldiers from moving to new assignments during the restricted period.

Among the first combat units to return from Iraq, beginning this month, will be the 101st Airborne Division, based at Fort Campbell, Ky.

The other major units returning this year are the 1st Armored Division, the 4th Infantry Division, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the 2nd Light Cavalry Regiment, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and elements of the 82nd Airborne Division.

The expanded restriction also applies to the U.S. soldiers who are due to be replaced in Afghanistan this year.

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