Presidential promise kept: Stopping stop-loss

President Obama is about to deliver on one of his promises, as his administration ends the military policy known as “stop-loss” next month [March 2011]. Stop-loss is the practice of involuntarily keeping volunteers in the military after their expected discharge dates. The Bush Administration instituted the stop-loss policy in 2001 and expanded it in 2004, as it struggled to maintain troop strength for two wars: Iraq and Afghanistan. Stop-loss expanded again in 2007, when President Bush called for more troops in Iraq.

The policy was controversial from the start, viewed by many—especially troops and their families—as a dishonest practice that violated the trust of those who volunteered for military service, many of whom had no idea that a forced extension of duty was in their contracts.

In its own words, the Defense Department describes stop-loss this way:

Stop-loss allows the military to extend service members beyond their end-of-term of service dates. The program has been used extensively since 9-11 to maintain personnel strength in deploying units. The program allows the military to extend service members whose end-of-term of service, retirement or end-of-service obligation date falls during a deployment. They may be involuntarily extended until the end of their unit’s deployment. The Army and Marine Corps used the policy the most.

At its peak in 2005, stop-loss affected 15,000 troops. Over time, that number was cut to 4,000. But it continued to create morale problems within the ranks. In effect, the stop-loss policy was a “back-door draft.” According to USA Today, more than 140,000 troops — all but about 20,000 of them Army soldiers — had assignments extended under the policy since 2001.

In March 2009, President Obama’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, declared that the practice had to end, saying it was “breaking faith” with those who volunteered to serve. Gates reportedly has opposed the policy since he came to the Defense Department in 2006. 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 additional troops sent to Iraq.

The need for stop-loss has decreased as the military—which went into Iraq and Afghanistan with what then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called “the Army you have, not the Army you want”—has beefed up its numbers considerably since 2001. [Although  stop-loss is about to end for the vast majority of troops, the policy will remain an option, says Gates, for soldiers with a limited range of highly exceptional skills deemed critical to their units’ missions. The new stop-loss policy, says Gates, will affect dozens, rather than thousands, of US troops.]

The essential end of stop-loss has itself been deferred several times. Gates’ first attempt to end the policy in 2007 failed. Then, under the Obama Administration in 2009, a new timetable called for an end to the policy in 2010. News reports chronicle several delays, pushing the end date from May 2010 to August 2010 to March 2011.

Stop-loss pay

In an effort to right the wrongs of stop-loss, the Obama administration enacted the 2009 War Supplemental Appropriations Act, which established a special payment for each month and partial month a soldier served in stop-loss status. Service members, veterans, and beneficiaries of service members whose service was involuntarily extended under Stop Loss between Sept. 11, 2001 and Sept. 30, 2009 are eligible.

According to the Department of Defense, as of Sept. 15, 2010, “about 58,000 of 145,000 eligible claims had been paid, and $219 million had been disbursed of the $534 million appropriated.  While tens of thousands of veterans already have received retroactive pay averaging nearly $4,000 each, many others have still not applied for the back pay. Many may be reluctant to sign anything coming from a military system that fooled them in the first place, and some have wondered if accepting the retroactive pay was another gimmick to reactivate them. As a result, the deadline for applying for the special pay has been extended several times. The deadline now stands at March 4, 2011.

The end of stop-loss is a welcome development for veterans groups, who have voiced outrage over the practice since its inception.

“The stop-loss policy is one that has been expanded and abused for too long,” said Jon Soltz, an Iraq war veteran and chairman of, in a New York Times interview, “and it is a significant and positive sign that the president plans to largely end it. If we had to point to one policy that has placed the most strain on our troops and their families, and adversely affected the morale and readiness of our forces, it would be stop-loss.”

Image credit: C. Todd Lopez