WASHINGTON — The number of soldiers forced to remain in the military past their enlistment period under the government's "stop-loss" program will be cut in half within 15 months under a plan that will virtually eliminate the practice within two years, the Defense Department said Wednesday.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the military would use involuntary retentions only in extraordinary situations and would turn to incentive programs to encourage people to extend their enlistments.
The announcement came on the same day veterans cheered a White House move away from a proposal that would shift responsibility for veterans healthcare onto insurance companies. Veterans groups feared the proposal could result in higher healthcare costs and cuts in service.
The number of soldiers forced to remain in the military past their discharge dates hit a peak of nearly 16,000 in winter 2005. The number was about 13,000 in January, the latest figures available.
Gates said the number had remained high because of growing demands for troops in Afghanistan.
Although the military will retain its power to involuntarily keep people in the Army, Gates said it was important to phase out the stop-loss program because it amounted to "breaking the faith" with soldiers.
"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," Gates said.
Gates and Army officials said the planned reduction of forces in Iraq would allow a move away from the stop-loss policy.
The Army has said the program was necessary to keep units together during deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan. Soldiers who leave before their units begin a combat tour force the military to fill gaps with untrained troops.
"The major advantage is stability, cohesiveness and the added combat power that that provides an army unit," said Lt. Gen. Michael D. Rochelle, the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel.
Army officers said that after the stop-loss policy was significantly reduced, they could maintain "unit cohesiveness" by offering incentives.
Under the new policy, the Army Reserve and Army National Guard will mobilize units without resorting to involuntary retentions starting in August and September. The active-duty Army will stop relying on stop-loss in January 2010.
Gates said the regular use of the stop-loss policy would be eliminated across the Army by 2011.
The Defense secretary acknowledged that some soldiers, particularly in high-demand specialties, might continue to be involuntarily retained. But he hoped the numbers would be in the "scores," not in the thousands.
The Defense Department also announced it would pay affected solders $500 a month, retroactive to October.
"They are finally getting paid for overtime," said Paul Rieckhoff of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Rieckhoff and other veterans representatives applauded Gates' announcement.
"It is a tremendous change; it is good for our troops," Rieckhoff said. "It was originally intended to be a Band-Aid, and it went on for too long. Stop-loss has been really demoralizing."
Rieckhoff also praised the White House decision to shift its stance on making insurance companies pay for the care of disabled veterans.
Veteran groups had protested the move in meetings with President Obama on Monday, and pressed the case with White House officials Wednesday.
"It is welcome news. Now we can focus on issues that are much more pressing," Rieckhoff said.