Eight U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq launched a legal challenge Monday to stop their tours of duty from being extended. The lawsuit is the first of its kind by a group of American soldiers on active service in the country. The soldiers, seven of whom remain anonymous out of fear of official retribution, are fighting against being forced to stay in their units after their period of enlistment has ended.
This so-called stop-loss policy has seen thousands of American soldiers being kept on despite having passed their official dates for retirement, leaving the military or switching to other units.
The move adds to a growing list of dissatisfactions expressed by current and former members of the military over U.S. handling of the Iraq war. They have ranged from widespread criticism over insufficient troop levels to equipment shortages and failures.
The stop-loss policy was introduced last spring for all U.S. soldiers posted to Iraq or Afghanistan. It means that soldiers whose period of enlistment ends while they are on active duty cannot go home until their entire unit reaches the end of its period of service. That could mean many weeks of additional service for individual soldiers whose enlistments end earlier than those of their comrades.
The U.S. Army says the policy is needed to maintain cohesion and avoid problems of continually integrating new men and women into units at war. However, critics have said that the Army is using the policy as a way of maintaining manpower levels at a time when the military is facing a recruiting squeeze. In recent months more than 7,000 soldiers have been affected by the policy.
The soldiers' suit against the Army claims that the stop-loss policy is a breach of contract. "This is a matter of fairness. My job was to go over and perform my duties under the contract I signed ... Now I believe that they should honor their end of the contract," one of the soldiers, David Qualls, told the New York Times. Qualls, the only one of the group not listed on court papers as "John Doe," said he was not against the war. But the soldiers' case, which has been filed in a court in Washington, has been taken up by several groups connected to the antiwar movement.
The soldiers have been given legal help from the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which has launched several cases challenging the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay. Some relatives of the soldiers have also been given advice and encouragement by Military Families Speak Out, a lobbying group of relatives formed to oppose the war. "This lawsuit addresses an injustice that is keeping soldiers fighting and dying after they have completed their side of their contract with the Army," said Nancy Lessin, cofounder of MFSO.
The eight soldiers in the lawsuit come from a variety of backgrounds. They include an Army musician, a transportation specialist and a National Guardsman. Qualls, who is due back in Iraq this weekend, is a radio operator. He signed up for one year in the Arkansas National Guard in 2003, but he said that he now expects to be in Iraq until sometime next year. "You've got thousands of people over there in the same situation as me and somebody's got to do something. Why not have it be me?" he said.