How soldiers are being held against their will to serve their country
By Moriah Petty
Let’s time travel back to December 2001, when the “War on Terror” was rapidly widening in scope. President Bush had declared a state of national emergency, which rapidly became the justification for an onslaught of questionable decisions by the American government. The military was searching for an infusion of new troops, so Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld decided it was time to get creative. Holding a national draft was out of the question, but recruitment alone could not fuel the amount of armed forces the Pentagon was looking for. So, they found a loophole called stop-loss.
First used in the Persian Gulf War, stop-loss (nicknamed the “backdoor draft” by critics) is when the military involuntarily extends a soldier’s term of service as defined by their enlistment contract. The extension time is entirely dictated by the Department of Defense, but the typical time frame is six months. A second stop-loss order was enacted in January 2002, followed by three more in November 2002, November 2003 and June 2004.
By 2008, Robert Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense. Gates openly opposed the policy, and in March 2009, he made a public statement addressing the issue: “Our goal is to cut the number of those stop-lossed by 50 percent by June 2010 and to eliminate the regular use of stop-loss across the entire Army by March 2011. We will retain the authority to use stop-loss under extraordinary circumstances.”
The first goal was met, but March 2011 is upon us, and it is unclear if Gates’ decision will take effect or if it will make any difference in the long run. The military will retain the right to impose stop-loss orders on any servicemen they choose since paragraph 10(c) of every enlistment contract states, “In a time of war or of national emergency declared by the Congress, I may, without my consent, be ordered to serve on active duty, for the entire period of the war or emergency and for six months after the its end. My enlistment may be extended during this period without my consent.” According to reports from the Pentagon, approximately 1 percent of soldiers have been affected by the policy during the “War on Terror.” Considering the size of the American army, this is equivalent to 120,000 servicemen and women.
One soldier affected was Andrew Johnson from Warwick, N.Y. Johnson served five years of duty, stationed abroad in Iraq and Korea. But a few months before he was meant to get out, he received stop-loss orders, and his service time was extended for an additional year and a half deployment back to Iraq. Johnson was already questioning the motives behind the American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and looking forward to being released from his service obligations and ending his participation in the war.
Looking back on when he received stop-loss orders, Johnson said, “The light at the end of the tunnel all of a sudden went out, and I didn’t know what to do.”
Johnson considers himself very lucky because he could be released on medical discharge. Others he knew were not.
“Once you’re in, they pretty much own you—they do own you,” Johnson said. “Your options are pretty limited … your back’s up against the wall.”
Fellow soldiers suffering from brain damage or PTSD diagnosed by an Army physician were redeployed instead of getting treatment. When placed in this no-win situation, it is common for soldiers to go AWOL or try to get kicked out deliberately. According to Johnson, the problem is that those who leave the service early for any reason other than honorable discharge are denied the GI benefits package including health care from the Veterans Association.
Johnson is currently a member of the organization Iraq Veterans Against the War, and names stop-loss as one of his motivations for joining the group. After completing his end of a bargain, he felt betrayed by the government for which he had served honorably.
“You sign up to… support and defend the Constitution of the United States. That’s part of the enlistment contract,” Johnson said. “But I felt like my rights were being violated. It is hard to risk your life to fight in the defense of the freedoms in the Constitution when you feel as if your have lost all your rights as a citizen.”
When the policy repeatedly came under scrutiny, Rumsfeld defended his decision to stop-loss troops with the justification used in a 2004 interview on the CBS news program, Face the Nation: “I am telling you that the fact is that everyone serving on active duty is a volunteer and they volunteered knowing precisely what the rules were. And they’ve known that stop-loss has been a part of that policy or rule throughout a very long period of time.”
The policy certainly brings down morale and combat readiness of troops while hurting the Army’s reputation on the home front. Despite Rumsfeld’s best efforts, a handful of soldiers over the years have protested the arbitrary extension of the service time, some even in court appeals.
One of the most prominent cases was Santiago v. Rumsfeld which reached the Court of Appeals in 2005. In 1996, Emiliano Santiago was 18 years old, and he enlisted in the National Guard. He signed up with a recruiter visiting his high school in Oregon, who glossed over the details of the contract.
Andrew Johnson had a similar experience of enlisting as a high school student. “You sign this master contract that you don’t really look at and can’t take home,” he said. “When I signed up, I didn’t know any of this. They don’t tell you anything.”
Santiago was very surprised to receive notice two weeks before his 2004 discharge date that his service time had been extended until 2031, beginning with a one-year tour of duty to Afghanistan. The reason provided for this 27-year extension: “administrative convenience.”
The courts found the military’s contract to be legal, and Santiago lost the lawsuit. The Portland lawyer who argued the case named Steven Goldberg said that since “they didn’t have the guts to do a draft,” they chose to use stop-loss despite the fact that “even within the military, there was ambivalence.”
Goldberg believes the case brought on some positive change but pointed out that without any decisive legislative action there is no way to prohibit the policy from being used again.
In 2008, recruitment numbers began to climb once again, and there was no longer need to stop-loss troops. Secretary Gates was also able to implement financial reparation for service extension to belatedly provide bonuses for soldiers, who involuntarily served longer than their original commitment. Under the Retroactive Stop-Loss Pay program, enacted in October 2009, a compensation of $500 is rewarded for each additional month of service to any soldier who has been stop-lossed over the course of the war.
Andrew Johnson says that he appreciates the gesture the government is making to attempt to repair their relationship with betrayed soldiers but its does not help the fact that what happened to them “was completely unfair.” Goldberg commented that in his opinion the payment is not adequate compensation for the sacrifice it demands. He knows soldiers who were stop-lossed then killed in that final tour of duty. In addition, the payment cannot possibly compensate for the lasting damage of the psychological impact of redeployment. An army survey found that soldiers who serve multiple tours are 50 percent more likely to suffer from a mental health problem and have extra difficulty settling back into their home life.
Secretary Gates wants to recognize that the soldiers were mistreated and make amends with those who served loyally and felt betrayed by the government. “It wasn’t a violation of the enlistment contract, but I believe that when somebody’s end date of service comes up, to hold them against their will, if you will, is just not the right thing to do,” Gates told USA Today in March 2009.
For the many critics who wonder if Gates’ decision to end stop-loss for the duration of the war will actually go into effect in March, due to the current state of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it is quite likely that it will. However, the enlistment contract remains unedited, so if the Pentagon decides that the country has once again encountered “extraordinary circumstances,” the policy can be reestablished.
The decision to go to war has to be made by Congress, but our current military action remains a “state of national emergency” declared by the president. The courts are meant to be the third branch that checks Congress and the White House to ensure they do not overstep their authority. But when the issue was brought up during the Santiago case, the judge stated that stop-loss fell under the president’s “authority as Commander-in-Chief to protect and defend the country from attack” and it is not the court’s job to second-guess the duties of this position. Stop-loss is highly unpopular among troops, the American public and prominent members of Congress, yet the Army was able to circumvent the system of checks and balances the country was built on because military action is prioritized by the government.
Moriah Petty is a freshman TV-R major who wants to stop stop-loss. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.