WASHINGTON - It will be more than a year before the Army can end the unpopular practice of forcing soldiers to stay in the service beyond their retirement or reenlistment dates, a top official said yesterday.
Lieutenant General James D. Thurman, deputy chief of staff for operations, said he hoped that wartime demand for troops will decline enough by around the fall of next year to end "stop-loss." He said there are more than 12,000 currently serving under the practice - an action that critics have called a backdoor draft.
Thurman also said that as officials continue to increase the size of the Army, it could be possible by the fall of 2011 for troops to be home two years for every year they are deployed.
Stop-loss and long tours of duty have been among the Pentagon's most disliked practices among troops. Thousands have been forced to stay in the service beyond their contracts since the start of the global war on terrorism. And tours of duty were increased to 15 months from 12 a year ago, so the Army could come up with the extra forces President Bush ordered for the troop buildup in Iraq.
Now that most of the extra troops are being drawn down by the end of July, early this month Bush ordered the tours cut back to 12 months, a move Thurman said would help the Army begin to restore its balance.
"We want to reduce the strain and stress on our soldiers and our families," he said at a Pentagon news conference.
There are 17 Army combat brigade teams deployed - 15 in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. Two are scheduled to come out of Iraq in the drawdown.
Though that allows officials to shorten tour lengths, it will be a while before they also can end stop-loss, he said.
"As the demand [for troops] comes down, we should be able to get us weaned off of stop-loss. . . . It's our intent to do that," Thurman said.
He said he hoped, but couldn't promise, that if demand stabilized at around 15 brigades, the use of stop-loss could be completed by the end of budget year 2009, or beginning of budget year 2010.
Those currently being held even though their service is supposed to be finished include more than 6,800 active-duty Army personnel, about 3,800 in the Army National Guard and close to 1,500 in the Reserves, he said.