By Tom Vanden Brook
WASHINGTON � The number of Army soldiers forced to serve beyond their commitment has been cut in half in the past year and is on track to be eliminated by March 2011, Pentagon records and interviews show.
The practice known as "stop loss" affected more than 15,000 troops at its peak in 2005 and has been cut to about 4,000. Experts on military morale say the steady decline in forcing troops to serve has dampened the controversy, though they say the Pentagon delayed action.
The use of stop loss during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has "dragged on for years," said James Martin, a professor of social work at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and a retired Army colonel and Pentagon official. "In terms of policy, clearly somebody had to think out of the box."
That somebody turned out to be Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He declared in March 2009 that the practice had to end, saying it was "breaking faith" with those who volunteered to serve. He had ordered the services to reduce stop loss in 2007. However, the numbers of troops affected climbed more than 40% in the months that followed, largely because of the additional troops sent to Iraq.
More than 140,000 troops � all but about 20,000 of them Army soldiers � had assignments extended under the policy since 2001. It was referred to as a "back-door draft" by Rep. John Murtha, the combat veteran and Pennsylvania Democrat who died early this year. Troops affected are eligible for additional payments of $500 for each month they were compelled to serve.
Stop loss can keep a servicemember in the military if his or her unit deploys within 90 days of the end of the commitment they make when they join. The Army relies on stop loss to keep units intact through training and combat tours.
"The Army was careful when determining whether or not to employ stop loss because we knew it placed an unfair burden on soldiers and families," Army Secretary John McHugh told USA TODAY. The policy affected about 1% of all soldiers, said Maj. Tim Beninato, a spokesman for the Army's personnel office.
The Pentagon has added tens of thousands of troops to the Army and Marine Corps since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began. That has reduced the need to use stop loss.
McHugh encouraged those affected by stop loss since 2001 to apply for compensation.