WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Army will phase out use of the so-called "stop-loss" program between now and January, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today.
Since the beginning of his term as defense secretary, Gates has called on the services to eliminate their dependence on the controversial program that allows the involuntary extension of servicemembers' active duty past the scheduled end of their term of service.
The Army currently has 13,000 soldiers whose active duty status was extended through the program so they could deploy with their units. The Army is the only service using the program.
"We have the legal authority to do it," Gates said during a Pentagon news conference. "But ... I felt, particularly in these numbers, that it was breaking faith. It wasn't a violation of the enlistment contract. But I believe that when somebody's end date of service comes up, to hold them against their will, if you will, is just not the right thing to do."
The secretary said there will always be the need to hold a few people in the service, but it should be a small number. "I would like to get it down to scores, not thousands," he said.
The secretary's decision will eliminate the use of stop-loss for deploying soldiers.
"Effective this August, the U.S. Army Reserve will no longer mobilize units under stop-loss," Gates said. "The Army National Guard will stop doing so in September, and active Army units will cease employing stop-loss in January."
The goal is to cut the number of soldiers remaining in the Army under stop-loss by 50 percent by June 2010 and to near zero by March 2011. "We will retain the authority to use stop-loss under extraordinary circumstances," Gates said.
The Army will put in place a number of incentives to encourage soldiers to voluntarily extend their enlistments to mitigate the impact the decision will have on unit cohesion and strength. Starting this month, the Army will pay stop-lossed solders $500 a month. The program is retroactive to Oct. 1, which was when Congress passed the law permitting the payments.
While there is some risk, Gates said, he wants to do everything to make sure "soldiers are not unnecessarily forced to stay in the Army past their end of service date."
Army leaders spoke to the secretary recently on the proposal, and they are putting in place the directives and regulations to make it work, Army officials said.
"I think that the way the Army is approaching this mitigates those risks, so I feel comfortable with this plan," Gates said.
The Army is able to make this move because of three reasons, Army officials said: the changing conditions in Iraq, a new unit rotation program that is being put in place, and the increase in the size of the Army. Over the next 18 months, the drawdown in Iraq will far outnumber the increase in Afghanistan, Gates said.
The Marines used stop-loss early in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A total of 3,389 active-duty Marines served beyond their terms of service. About 5,000 Marine reservists were stop-lossed, but only 443 of them were mobilized, Marine Corps officials said. The Marines stopped using the program May 12, 2003.
The Air Force used the program sparingly in 2001, 2002 and 2003. It implemented stop-loss for 43 officers and 56 enlisted airmen for Operation Iraqi Freedom, and ended it on June 23, 2003.
The Navy has not used the program since the spring of 2003, and then it was for medical corpsmen to serve with the Marines, Navy officials said.