What Are They Volunteering For?

Tech Central Station

December 14, 2004

Army National Guard Specialist David Qualls and seven of his comrades filed suit against the Defense Department over what they charge is the unfair extension of their active duty obligation beyond the term they agreed to. Qualls signed up with the Arkansas National Guard under the “Try-One” enlistment option which, according to the recruiting pitch, “lets you try the Guard for one year without additional commitment.” His year was up in June but his commitment was extended into next year under the Pentagon’s stop-loss program, which allows the extension of enlistments during war or national emergencies as a way to promote continuity and cohesiveness. This policy, invoked in June, will keep tens of thousands of personnel in the military beyond their expected departure. The case raises questions of legality, military effectiveness, and basic fairness.

Qualls is not the first to sue over this issue, but no one has won yet. The Defense Department has won round one of this, with U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruling that, whatever their recruiters might have told them, their enlistment contract allows the government to do this. The dirty little secret of military recruiters is that, regardless of the length of the initial active duty contract, everyone who joins the military incurs an eight-year obligation under Section 10145 of 10 USC. This fact is buried in the long enlistment contract and certainly not emphasized by recruiters, who are under heavy pressure to meet monthly quotas. Under ordinary circumstances, soldiers who have served their initial active duty or drilling reserve contracts are permitted to serve the rest of their time in the Individual Ready Reserve. Most of these people, like myself, serve out their IRR commitment without ever putting a uniform on again.

During times of “national emergency,” however, the military has the discretion to order these soldiers into active service. On September 14, 2001, President Bush issued a proclamation that, “A national emergency exists by reason of the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center, New York, New York, and the Pentagon, and the continuing and immediate threat of further attacks on the United States.” Slate chief political correspondent William Saletan contends that, because the Iraq war is not against these terrorists, the government has no right to initiate the stop-loss policy. Whatever the philosophical merit of that position, however, the courts have historically been quite reluctant to interfere with presidents exercising their powers as commander-in-chief. The bottom line is that Qualls and others in his position can be required to serve until they have served their eight years. The eight year mark works both ways. Last month, the Army backed down from a lawsuit filed by Captain Jay Ferriola, to whom it attempted to apply the stop-loss policy even though he resigned from the service and his eight year commitment was fulfilled.

While it may be unfair that these people have to serve longer than they had planned while those who never enlisted in the first place have no obligation, it is sound military policy. Indeed, until Vietnam, it was standard practice to have soldiers serve “for the duration.” There were many people in World War Two who served from the earliest days all the way through V-J Day and beyond. As we learned in Vietnam, having soldiers rotate in and out of combat zones as individuals is simply too disruptive. A professional fighting force depends on people training together and then fighting together. As an Army spokesman explained, “It is a management tool that’s helping us to maintain combat effectiveness and readiness: we hold the team together. Stop loss is not about increasing end strength; it is about training, deploying and redeploying cohesive teams. Lt. Col. Karl Reed, an infantry battalion commander, told the Army Times that he would have lost a quarter of his unit within a year absent stop-loss. “I would have had to train them and prepare them to go on the line. Given where we are, it will be a 24-hour combat operation; therefore it’s very difficult to bring new folks in and integrate them.”

Of course, over-reliance on this authority could also undermine morale. Phillip Carter noted back in June that the Pentagon has to rely so heavily on reserve call-ups and involuntary active duty extensions because it is reluctant to field an adequate active duty contingent because of the exorbitant costs involved and thus is forced to rely heavily on the Reserve Component, including the IRR. As General Norman Schwarzkopf recently made clear on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” the military leadership sees little  problem with this: “I think it is pay back time for an awful lot of these people who are in the IRR. They’re in the IRR, because they were active in other times and held very good positions and got a lot of benefits from it. We can’t have a standing army, a huge standing army. The nation can’t afford one. And that’s why they have the I.R.R. which [is] group of people that in the event of a national emergency, we can call them up to fill certain vacancies out there that otherwise, we don’t have continuous people in them.”

While Schwarzkopf’s analysis may be correct when applied to short-term deployments such as Desert Storm, it might well not work in an open-ended conflict such as the war on terror. If the United States is going to be drawing down its force in Iraq within a few months after the elections in January, stop-loss and the massive reserve call-ups are the only feasible solution. If, however, the need for this expanded active force is going to continue, substantial increases in end strength will be necessary to avoid dangerous levels of fatigue, erosion of morale, and, eventually, a drop in enlistments.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, responding to complaints about stop-loss from a soldier at Kuwait’s Camp Buehring this past Tuesday, answered, “It’s basically a sound principle, it’s nothing new, it’s been well understood” by soldiers, he said. “My guess is it will continue to be used as little as possible, but that it will continue to be used.” While stop-loss is indeed a sound principle and nothing new — and is certainly well understood by soldiers at this point — it is quite debatable how well it is understood by those about to sign on the dotted line in the first place.

Soldiers sign up willing to make huge sacrifices, including putting their lives on the line. In exchange for this, we owe it to them to stop hiding the nature of this obligation from those who willingly volunteer for military duty. The military’s recruiting pitch, as displayed on their website, is incredibly misleading. Here’s what it says about the Guard and Reserve:

“You can serve your country without making any full-time commitment and receive many of the same benefits. In the Reserves and National Guard, your obligation is generally one weekend a month, plus two weeks of active duty a year.”

While this was once typical in peacetime, it bears little relation to what reservists have been asked to do since 9/11 — or, indeed, the early 1990s.

The eight year service commitment, spelled out in the enlistment contract, needs to be made clear up front. Here, for example, is what it says about the service obligation:

“Most first-term enlistments are four years, but services offer programs with two-, three- and six-year enlistments. It depends upon the service and the job that you want.

[. . .]

“Standard commitments for service academy graduates who do not receive rated follow-on training is five years. Graduates who accept pilot training are committed to active duty for nine years. ROTC also generally requires five-year payback while other active-duty commissioning programs usually require a minimum of three years.”

Nowhere is the eight year figure mentioned. To be fair, as Judge Lamberth noted when he issued his ruling, “This wasn’t in the fine print. It’s only a two-page contract.” But a smooth-talking recruiter can easily explain away contract language to an eager eighteen-year-old. Indeed, the Army recruiting pitch makes light of the gravity of the contract:

“Getting out of a contract is not easy, but there are ways. The difficulty varies with the needs of the nation and the availability of talent in your chosen career field. You should plan on fulfilling any commitment you make; if you have questions talk to your commander.”

While this is technically true in most peacetime circumstances, it is simply farcical five months into stop-loss. Then there’s this:

“Bonus Tip. The one year trial plan. Both the Army and Air National Guard offer the ‘Try-One’ enlistment option to active duty veterans and all prior service individuals who are joining or rejoining the Guard for the first time. This program lets you try the Guard for one year without additional commitment.”

Specialist Qualls would beg to differ.

The United States has, since 1973, had an All-Volunteer military. It has worked superbly. Having only soldiers who want to be there and who have years of training has created the best fighting force the world has ever seen. For it to continue to work, however, we must make it clear to these people what they are volunteering for.

Original article