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More Kept in Army Despite Gates' Order

More Kept in Army Despite Gates' Order
By Tom Vanden Brook,
USA Today
Posted: 2008-04-22 11:31:20

(April 22) - The Army has accelerated its policy of involuntary extensions of duty to bolster its troop levels, despite Defense Secretary Robert Gates' order last year to limit it, Pentagon records show.

Gates directed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the service secretaries to minimize mandatory tour extensions, known as "stop loss," in January 2007. By May, the number of soldiers affected by the policy had dropped to a three-year low of 8,540.
Since then, the number of soldiers forced to remain in the Army rose 43% to 12,235 in March. The reliance on stop loss has increased as the military has sent more troops to Iraq and extended tours to 15 months to support an escalation in U.S. forces ordered by President Bush. The increase last month was driven by the need to send more National Guard soldiers to Iraq.

Soldiers affected by stop loss now serve, on average, an extra 6.6 months, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said. Key leaders at the small-unit level - sergeants through sergeants first class - make up 45% of those soldiers. Soldiers typically enlist for four-year stints.

"Secretary Gates understands the hardship stop loss poses to our troops and their families, but he also understands the need to maintain cohesive units on the battlefield throughout deployment," Morrell said. "Troops who have trained together and fought together should remain together."

The trend is alarming, said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who wrote a letter on April 17 to Gates urging him "in the strongest terms" to limit stop loss. He says the policy hurts morale, burdens troops' families, damages the credibility of military leaders and threatens recruiting.

Stop loss can keep a soldier in the service if his or her unit deploys within 90 days of the end of the soldier's commitment. It is necessary, the Army says, to maintain the integrity of units headed to war. In all, 58,300 soldiers have been affected by stop loss since 2002, according to the Army. That's about 1% of active duty, Reserve and National Guard troops.

The policy shows the Army is "unraveling a bit" while "under tremendous strain," said Rep. Joe Sestak, a Pennsylvania Democrat and retired vice admiral.

Lt. Gen. James Thurman, Pentagon deputy chief of staff for operations, said Monday he hoped the Army could put a stop to mandatory extensions by fall 2009.

Although soldiers understand the reasons for stop loss it doesn't boost morale, said Robert Sauder, 24, a staff sergeant retained in 2006 when he was preparing to leave the service. Sauder, of Baroda, Mich., said he "was pretty sour about the whole situation."

Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. All Rights Reserved.
2008-04-22 09:17:44