Attrition: Stop Loss Struggles On


October 31,2008: Although the U.S. Department of Defense plans to halt using "Stop Loss" within the next two years, the practice is still in place. In September, 12,204 soldiers were affected by Stop Loss (kept on active service despite scheduled retirement or discharge). About the same number will be affected each month for another year. 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 build up for the Surge Offensive in Iraq that year. But there are still 151,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and 32,000 in Afghanistan ( being increased to over 50,000 in the next year). In other words, the 2007 "Surge Force" that went to Iraq, and recently returned, is now headed to Afghanistan. Thus the continued use of Stop Loss.

Stop Loss is critical for maintaining 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 six 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, nearly 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 feels it can get away for 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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