Army still forcing soldiers to remain in service

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army will continue to rely on an unpopular program that forces some soldiers to stay on beyond their retirement or re-enlistment dates, despite repeated pressure from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to reduce and eventually eliminate the practice.

Lt. Gen. Michael Rochelle, deputy chief of staff for personnel, said Thursday that the number of soldiers kept on duty has actually increased in recent months as a result of President Bush’s orders to increase troop levels in Iraq this year to help quell the violence.

The number of those being kept on beyond their commitment — through a program known as “stop loss” — is about 9,000 now, compared to about 7,000 before the troop buildup began in late January, he said.

“Until there is some reduction in the demand, we’re going to have to rely, unfortunately … on stop-loss,” Rochelle said. “Until the demand comes down a bit, we can’t do it without it.”

As recently as last month, Gates sent a memo to Army Secretary Pete Geren asking for quarterly progress reports on “reducing and ultimately eliminating the use of stop-loss as soon as feasible.”

Rochelle added that when the expected withdrawal of troops from Iraq begins, the Army’s reliance on the program will eventually decline.

In other remarks, Rochelle also suggested that the Army will only be able to increase its numbers by about 4,000 in the next year — a fraction of the 35,000 boost that Pentagon and Army leaders have set as a goal by 2010.

He said the Army will rely largely on two relatively new recruitment programs that would reward current active duty soldiers and National Guard soldiers who successfully bring in new people.

Other than those new efforts, the basic recruitment and retention goals for 2008 will stay the same as 2007, at 80,000 and 65,000 respectively, he said.

That, he said, reflects the “realistic view on how challenging it is at this point” to increase the size of the Army.

The Guard program, which only just began, has already garnered 25 recruits and there are 100 in the pipeline, Rochelle said, adding that the effort could bring in as many as 3,000 in 2008.

He said the Army is likely to continue increasing the financial, educational and other incentives to keep soldiers in the service. He declined to detail the costs of the incentives, or how much that might increase next year.

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