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When the Army Won't Let Go

With stop-loss orders extending tours up to 18 months, GIs banking on going home grapple with heading back to combat in Iraq instead.

June 17, 2004|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

FT. DRUM, N.Y. — Sgt. Todd Stoner and Spc. Cliff Ponciano had turned in their gear and booked flights home. Their 4-year Army commitments had dwindled to the last couple of days. As they recently began the paperwork to process out, their return to civilian life was so close they could almost taste it.

But their unit, the 2nd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, was on alert for possible duty in Iraq. Stoner and Ponciano had heard rumors circulating at Ft. Drum: The Pentagon might not allow soldiers in outfits headed to Iraq and Afghanistan to leave the Army, even if their enlistments were up.

"I was still pretty much hoping I could squeeze by," Stoner, 24, of Grafton, N.H., said last week. His friend, Ponciano, 22, of Veneta, Ore., added: "We'd already been in Kuwait once and Afghanistan twice. I'd done my time. I just wanted to chill out a little before starting college in the fall."

On June 2, the Army announced a so-called stop-loss order that extended the enlistments of thousands of soldiers by up to 18 months. Stoner and Ponciano canceled their flights home, went to see their supply sergeant for a new consignment of gear and prepared for another tour of combat duty.

"Todd was real depressed when he called to say the Army wasn't going to let him out," Stoner's father, Ken, said. "He had plans for college, plans with his girlfriend. But he'll go with the flow. What I don't understand, though, is if we're so short of manpower in a volunteer Army that soldiers can't get discharged, why don't we have a draft? I don't like a draft, but maybe we need one."

The stop-loss order -- which Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has referred to as a "back-door draft" -- prevents soldiers from leaving the Army if their unit is within 90 days of deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan. Soldiers also must remain on active duty for 90 days after their unit completes its scheduled yearlong combat tour. The Army Reserve and National Guard have been under a similar order since 2002.

Army commanders did not cite a manpower shortage as a reason for the order. They said the rationale for delaying retirements and other discharges was to ensure the Army had "cohesive, trained units going to war together." In the Vietnam War, units often were more or less patched together with soldiers who did not know one another.

"There's no doubt the Army is stretched thin today," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "But I think the real question the stop-loss order raises is, how voluntary is the all-volunteer force? The whole notion behind an all-volunteer force is that people commit to a certain tour of duty" -- and both enlistees and the military honor the commitment.

The U.S. military, facing a more tenacious insurgency than it had anticipated, had planned to reduce troop strength in Iraq this summer to 105,000.

Instead, the Pentagon will increase it by 5,000 soldiers and Marines, to 145,000. In addition to the stop-loss order, the military has maintained its ranks by tapping into the National Guard and Army Reserve and extending units in Iraq beyond their yearlong tours.

"No, I don't really want to go back to Iraq for another tour," said Sgt. Joe Berhosky, 21, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., one of the Ft. Drum soldiers whose active duty has been extended. "But if you have to do it, you just do it. My parents were kind of bummed out that I couldn't get my discharge, but that's the way it goes in the Army.

"I know getting extended isn't going to affect my performance in Iraq. I've got guys under me looking up to me to provide leadership. You can't let them down, and I won't. Any soldier in the brigade would tell you the same thing."

The 2nd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, which has suffered 23 dead, is in final training to return to Iraq. A quick reaction force that -- unlike its World War II namesake -- is trained to fight in all environments, it has been the Army's most-deployed division since being reactivated in 1985. It was the first unit to put conventional ground forces in Central Asia after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"The reaction to the stop-loss order has been minimal," said Col. Mark Milley, the brigade commander. "Sure, it was a hard pill to swallow for some kids. But we are a nation at war, and it is a war that must be won. No maybes or ifs. My soldiers understand that. No one got a bum deal, because being called to defend your country isn't a bum deal. It's an honor.

"I was at a party recently, and kids from other units just back three or four weeks from Iraq came up to me and said, 'Sir, I want to go back. I want to finish the job. Can I go with you?' For every kid saying the stop-loss was really painful, I've got 60 or 70 volunteering to go to Iraq. On top of that, we've met our reenlistment quota every quarter since 9/11."

Milley said 168 soldiers in his brigade of about 3,000 troops were affected by the stop-loss order. Commanders have the discretion to override the order and let soldiers leave the Army on schedule for just cause -- such as being accepted to a military academy and some other universities, having a particular job lined up, especially in the CIA or FBI, and for personal hardship. Miller and his senior officers have allowed 43 of the 168 soldiers to return to civilian life.

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