Attrition: Stop Loss Lives


February 4, 2010:  In an effort to keep key people overseas longer, the U.S. Army is offering cash monthly bonuses to those who will stay an extra three months, a year, or two years, in places like South Korea, Afghanistan, or other areas where conditions are austere (and families are usually not allowed.) Additional monthly payments vary from $300-500 a month, depending on location and duration. There is a similar plan for those willing to postpone retirement or discharge for up to a year. That plan offers troops $350 extra a month if they stay in for up to six months, and $500 a month for those who stay more than that. All these plans are subject to constant modification depending on response. The army finds it cheaper to pay the bonuses than to go without key people, or having to send replacements out.

One reason  this is happening is because, starting this year, the use of Stop Loss (American soldiers involuntarily kept on active duty), ceases. Earlier, soldiers subject to Stop Loss began receiving an additional $500 a month for as long as they are on Stop Loss status (usually no more than a year). A new law also provides the $500 a month bonus retroactively to all Stop Lossed soldiers.

The U.S. Department of Defense had planned to stop using "Stop Loss" next year (except for a few emergency cases) anyway. Last year, about 12,000 soldiers were subject to Stop Loss (kept on active service despite scheduled retirement or discharge) at any given time. Many officers and NCOs believe that the end of Stop Loss will cause more casualties, and make units less effective in combat. That's because key people will no longer be going into combat with their units. The monthly bonus program is, in part, an attempt to avoid that.

Use of Stop Loss peaked in 2005, at 15,758 troops a month. The lowest number held was in May, 2007 (8,540), but climbed back to 12,000 a month because of the demands of the Surge Offensive in Iraq that year. On average, over the last eight years, about 6,500 soldiers were on stop loss status at any given time.

There are still 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and nearly 70,000 in Afghanistan. But this year, at least 50,000 troops will come home from Iraq, and not be replaced. However, many soldiers that previously would have gone to Iraq, and recently returned, are now headed to Afghanistan. Thus the continued use of bonuses, to replace the defunct  Stop Loss.

Stop Loss is mainly used to maintain the combat ability of units headed overseas. Because of retirements, schools, leave, expired enlistments and so on, military units today can have over twenty percent of their troops away, or about to leave, at any one time. To keep units headed overseas up to strength, the U.S. Army began using the "Stop Loss" rule seven years ago. This meant that troops could not retire, and if they were at the end of their enlistment, they had to stay in the service, until their tour of duty in Iraq was completed. The main reason for this policy was to save lives. The majority of people stop lossed were NCOs (usually squad and team leaders about to be discharged, or senior ones about to retire) and technicians. The NCOs were critical in combat, the glue that held units together.    Replacing these leaders just before a unit ships out to a combat zone, leaves troops with unfamiliar replacement leaders, which leads to mistakes, and dead soldiers.

Stop Loss also halts scheduled transfers from a unit so affected. The Stop Loss has been applied separately to active duty and reserve units, causing some morale problem in Iraq when reserve units were under Stop Loss and active duty units were not. So far, some 100,000 active duty and reserve troops have been hit with a Stop Loss order, and served another few months, or as much as a year.

During World War II, troops were in "for the duration" (of the war.) Historically, that was the exception, not the rule in the American military. During the American Revolution and American Civil War, troops served fixed enlistments and left when their six months, two years or whatever were up.

The government was wary of issuing a "for the duration" order for the War On Terror because of the potential political backlash, and the difficulty of attracting recruits for an all-volunteer force. During the Korean and Vietnam war there was a limit of 13 months service in the combat zone and enlistments were rarely extended involuntarily. Iraq was another one of those wars where the government felt it could get away with a little "for the duration lite", which is what Stop Loss is.

Stop Loss has been part of the enlistment contract since the 1970s. Basically, troops take on an eight year obligation when they enlist, even if the specified period of active service is only four years. Normally, the rest of the obligation is served in the IRR (Individual Ready Reserve), which usually requires no contact with the military. Thus, at the end of three or four years, troops receive a document saying they have been "released from active service." Four or five years later, they get their discharge. It's just another example of why you should always read the fine print.





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