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"Stop Loss" Continues
Chicago Tribune
September 27, 2004

LOS ANGELES - Luis Prosper has spent more than half his life in the Army and was looking forward the prospect of a new life starting at middle age.

But that all changed when the Defense Department issued a "stop loss" order forcing some members of the country's volunteer armed forces to remain in service beyond their contractually agreed-upon term.

Like thousands of other men and women in the military, Prosper, 41, has had to rethink his future, at least for the time being.

"I was ready to retire, but I'm a soldier," said Prosper, a 25-year veteran who has reached the rank of sergeant major. "Before we give these soldiers bad leadership, I'd rather stay in uniform and do the job."

The ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are severely stretching the armed forces, a situation that some experts suggest may grow far worse within the next two years.

"In a year and a half or two years, there are going to be huge [personnel] shortages," said Andrew Exum, a retired Army captain who served in Afghanistan. "You can't keep these guys in for good."

Exum and others are worried that the stop-loss orders could dissuade current service members from re-enlisting and reduce new enlistments.

"The biggest effect will be on those who might have re-enlisted," Exum said. "The senior non-coms and majors and colonels are not going anywhere, but they are not the ones fighting this war," he said of the enlisted volunteers who make up the bulk of the fighting force.

The Pentagon issued its latest stop-loss order in June, forcing thousands of men and women to stay in the military and requiring many to return to combat duty well beyond their agreed-upon period of active service. The effect of the order has been that thousands of members of the all-volunteer armed forces no longer are serving voluntarily.

Both Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and Arizona's Republican Sen. John McCain have condemned the administration's policy as a kind of backdoor draft.

Last month a member of the California National Guard filed suit in federal court in San Francisco challenging the Bush administration's stop-loss policy on the premise that such orders can be issued only during a war officially declared by Congress.

"We challenged the authority the government is doing this on," said Joshua Sondheimer, one of the attorneys representing the guardsman, who is identified only as John Doe in the suit in an effort to protect his privacy.

Sondheimer said his client, a former Marine who served in the current Iraq conflict, has had to postpone plans to attend college.

"His life is a bit in limbo right now," he said.

In the all-volunteer armed forces, service is agreed to on a contractual basis. Active-duty periods are specified, as is a period of reserve status. Exum, for example, served actively for four years but is contractually bound to another four years in the reserves.

Military service has been voluntary since 1973, when the draft came to an end as the Vietnam war drew to a close. And then, tours in theaters of operations were limited to one year for the most part.

"The stop-loss is having a tremendous impact on morale," said Charles Moskos, a sociology professor at Northwestern University who specializes in the military.

Moskos, who recently met with U.S. troops in Baghdad, said the demographics of the U.S. armed forces have changed dramatically since service became voluntary more than 30 years ago.

"The [National] Guard and the reserves are involved this time," he said. "It is a much more married force with families involved."

Before the invasion of Iraq, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki said in congressional hearings that several hundred thousand troops would be required to maintain stability in the country after full combat ended.

Shinseki's suggestion quickly was dismissed by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a view later echoed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Currently there are more than 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The latest stop-loss order was bolstered by a separate decision to recall 5,600 members of the 111,000-strong Individual Ready Reserve, soldiers who, like Exum, have completed their specified period of active duty but remain on reserve status until their contractual commitment is completed.

It was the first large-scale call-up from the Individual Ready Reserve since the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

The underlying problem the Army faces grows from decisions made in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Foreseeing a changed world in which a smaller force would be adequate, the Army was trimmed by500,000 active-duty troops, about 300,000 fewer than in 1989.

Then came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the start of the war on terrorism. The subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq presented the armed forces with unexpected demands.

Exum, who was not affected by the stop-loss orders, has been in contact with members of his former unit, the 2nd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division based in Ft. Drum, N.Y.

He says his friends and colleagues are doing their duty and returning to combat, but he remained concerned about the effect the new policy is having on them and their families.

Exum says that if he had been ordered back to service, he would have served. But he still feels that the stop-loss orders, while probably legal, are fundamentally unfair and are done as a less objectionable way to maintain force numbers than returning to a draft.

"These are one of those things we do for political interests," he said.

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