The Army this summer will start cutting back on use of the unpopular practice of holding troops beyond their enlistment dates and hopes to almost completely eliminate it in two years.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, though, it may never be possible to completely get rid of the policy called "stop-loss," under which some 13,000 soldiers whose time is already up are still being forced to continue serving.
"I felt, particularly in these numbers, that it was breaking faith," Gates told a Pentagon press conference.
Though officials have the legal power to involuntarily extend soldier's service, "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 said.
He said that he hoped any future use after 2011 would only be in "scores, not thousands."
Critics have called "stop-loss" a backdoor draft because it keeps troops in the military beyond their retirement or re-enlistment dates. But the military has said it's a necessary tool to keep unit cohesion in times of war and to keep soldiers with certain skills needed in those units.
Soldiers and their families strongly dislike stop-loss and it was the title of a 2008 Hollywood movie in which a soldier who served in Iraq goes AWOL rather than following orders to stay longer in the service and go again.
'Victory for soldiers'
Rep. John Murtha said earlier Wednesday that the military also had agreed to begin $500 monthly payments to troops still forced to stay in service beyond their retirement or enlistment terms.
The payments are planned to soften the effects of the practice, which makes it impossible for troops to make lasting work and family plans.
"This is a victory for soldiers and their families," Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., said. "After months and often years of risking their lives, our troops deserve to know when they will return home. The military made a deal with our men and women in uniform and will now live up to that commitment."
The policy can keep a soldier in service if his or her unit deploys within 90 days of the end of the soldier's commitment. The Army has said 1 percent of the Army is affected by the forced extensions. As of January, the roughly 13,000 soldiers on stop-loss included 7,300 active-duty Army, about 4,450 in the Guard and 1,450 reservists.
Effective this month, troops will get $500-per-month payments for extending their service and it will be made retroactive for those who were on the stop-loss roles as of last Oct. 1. Payments before were not possible, officials said, because Congress did not appropriate funds for that. The costs for the payments for the budget year that began Oct. 1, 2008, are about $72 million.
Not without risks
Under the Army plan approved by Gates, the Army Reserve in August will begin mobilizing units that don't include stop-loss soldiers and the Guard in September will do the same.
The active duty Army is to deploy its first unit without stop-loss in January, he said.
Though the practice has been virtually ended in all other service branches, the Army said it still needed to use it because of the severe strain it has been under fighting the two ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Officials say it is possible to gradually reduce the number of stop-loss soldiers now because the Army has grown, retention is good, because of the drawdown in Iraq and because officials are changing the way new units rotate — something that gives units scheduled for combat more time to get the people with the skills they need as opposed to holding in service soldiers who have that skill.
Gates acknowledged that there is a risk. Though he didn't lay it out, it is that a serious deterioration of conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan could mean the Army would be short-handed again in certain skill sets.
"Our goal is to cut the number of those stop-lost by 50 percent by June 2010 and to eliminate the regular use of stop-loss across the entire Army by March 2011," Gates said. "We will retain the authority to use stop-loss under extraordinary circumstances."