Friday, May 9, 2008

US Army's "Stop-Loss" Orders Up Dramatically Over Last Year

There are 256 days until Jan. 20, 2009.

t r u t h o u t | 05.09

US Army's "Stop-Loss" Orders Up Dramatically Over Last Year
By Julian E. Barnes
The Los Angeles Times

Friday 09 May 2008

Washington - The number of soldiers forced to remain in the Army involuntarily under the military's controversial "stop-loss" program has risen sharply since the Pentagon extended combat tours last year, officials said Thursday.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was briefed about the program by Army officials who said that thousands of new stop-loss orders were issued to keep soldiers from leaving the service after Gates ordered combat tours extended from 12 to 15 months last spring.

The Army has resorted to involuntary extensions of soldiers' enlistment terms to prevent them from leaving immediately before a combat tour or in the middle of a deployment.

Army officials have argued that the policy is necessary to ensure that they are not forced to send inadequately trained soldiers and unprepared units into war.

However, many soldiers subjected to the stop-loss policy consider it a backdoor draft. Critics argue that once soldiers have completed the enlistment period they agreed to, they should be allowed to return home. The involuntary retention program is so unpopular that it helped inspire a recent movie called "Stop-Loss."

The number of soldiers held in the Army under the stop-loss program reached a high in March 2005 of 15,758. That number steadily declined through May 2007, when it hit 8,540. But since then, the number of soldiers subjected to stop-loss orders began to increase again, reaching 12,235 in March 2008.

In April 2007, Gates ordered combat tours extended to support the U.S. troop buildup and to address concerns about uneven tour lengths. But because many soldiers were due to leave the service at the end of their combat tours, Army officials had to order them under stop-loss provisions to remain.

In a news conference Thursday, Gates said he believed the Army had good reasons for using the stop-loss policy.

"They don't like it any better than I do. But it has proven necessary in order to maintain the force," Gates said.

Still, he said, use of the policy "is an issue. It troubles me." Top Defense officials have pushed the Army to reduce the use of stop-loss orders.

"When somebody expects to leave at a given time, and you tell them they can't do that, it's got to have an impact on them. And that's the part that troubles me," Gates said.

Soldiers subjected to stop-loss orders are often those whose enlistment period ends during a combat tour or who are due to leave within 90 days of the scheduled start of a combat tour. Without the stop-loss policy, the Army would have to replace those soldiers with new ones who had not trained with the unit.

Between 2002 and 2007, 58,300 soldiers were given stop-loss orders, forcing them to remain in the service past the end of their enlistment periods.

The number of soldiers serving under the stop-loss program will begin to decline again in September, Gates said. By then, there will be fewer U.S. troops in Iraq and Army combat tours will return to 12 months.

Army officials could not predict when they would no longer need to resort to stop-loss orders. But as troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan shrink, the policy will become less necessary, officials say.

The Army first used a stop-loss program in 1990 during the run-up to the Persian Gulf War. In 2002, the Army instituted stop-loss orders for certain specialties, a policy that ended in 2003. The current stop-loss program was put in place just before the invasion of Iraq .

Gates said that about half of the soldiers kept in the Army under the stop-loss policy are noncommissioned officers who hold important leadership positions, at the rank of sergeant and above, and cannot easily be replaced.

"And so if you pull them, if they left a unit, it would leave a pretty gaping hole while still deployed," Gates said.


More Than 43,000 Unfit Troops Deployed
By Gregg Zoroya
USA Today

Thursday 08 May 2008

Washington - More than 43,000 U.S. troops listed as medically unfit for combat in the weeks before their scheduled deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan since 2003 were sent anyway, Pentagon records show.

This reliance on troops found medically "non-deployable" is another sign of stress placed on a military that has sent 1.6 million servicemembers to the war zones, soldier advocacy groups say.

"It is a consequence of the consistent churning of our troops," said Bobby Muller, president of Veterans For America . "They are repeatedly exposed to high-intensity combat with insufficient time at home to rest and heal before redeploying."

The numbers of non-deployable soldiers are based on health assessment forms filled out by medical personnel at each military installation before a servicemember's deployment.

According to those statistics, the number of troops that doctors found non-deployable, but who were still sent to Iraq or Afghanistan fluctuated from 10,854 in 2003, down to 5,397 in 2005, and back up to 9,140 in 2007.

The Pentagon records do not list what - or how serious - the health issues are, nor whether they were corrected before deployment, said Michael Kilpatrick, a deputy director for the Pentagon's Force Health Protection and Readiness Programs.

A Pentagon staffer examined 10,000 individual health records last year to determine causes for the non-deployable ratings, Kilpatrick said. Some reasons included a need for eyeglasses, dental work or allergy medicine and a small number of mental health cases, he said.

This is the first war in which this health screening process has been used, the Pentagon said.

Most of the non-deployable servicemembers are in the Army, which is doing most of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan . Between 5% and 7% of all active-duty, National Guard and Reserve soldiers slated for combat were found medically unfit due to health problems each year since 2003, according to statistics provided to USA TODAY.

Unit commanders make the final decision about whether a servicemember is sent into combat, although doctors can recommend against deployment because of a medical issue, Army spokeswoman Kim Waldron said.

"The commander consults with health care professionals to determine whether the treatment a soldier needs is available in theater," said Army Col. Steven Braverman of the Army Medical Command.

At Fort Carson , Colo. , Maj. Gen. Mark Graham ordered an investigation into deployment procedures for a brigade deployed to Iraq late last year. At least 36 soldiers were found medically unfit but were still deployed, Graham told USA TODAY.

For at least seven soldiers, treatment in the war zone was inadequate and the soldiers were sent home, he said, and at least two of them should never have been deployed.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, the panel's chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked Army leaders about an e-mail from the surgeon for the Fort Carson brigade that said medically "borderline" soldiers went to war because "we have been having issues reaching deployable strength."

"That should not be happening," Army Secretary Pete Geren told the committee. "I can't tell you that it's not, but it certainly should not be happening."

Meanwhile, soldiers with medical problems have also deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan from Fort Drum in New York and Fort Stewart and Fort Benning, both in Georgia, according to Brenda Farrell, who is leading an investigation into the practice for the Government Accountability Office.

A report from that investigation sought by members of the House Armed Services Committee is due in June.

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