This summer, Congress surprised me with an unexpected but welcome gift. A House subcommittee on defense appropriations had approved $500 for each month that a service member was retained under stop-loss, the policy by which military personnel can be involuntarily retained on active duty. Since September 11, 2001, 180,000 troops have served beyond the end of their enlistment contracts. The Navy, Marines, and Air Force curtailed stop-loss in 2003, but the Army—which accounts for 130,000 of those affected—still uses the policy. I served an extra 14 months under stoploss, including a year in Iraq, my second tour there. The House valued that life interruption at $7000.
Now, though, my wallet feels a bit lighter. In late-round finagling over the $612-billion defense bill, senators amended the stop-loss provision, removing the clause that made payments retroactive.
Budgets are all about priorities, and there’s never enough money. It will cost about $72 million to apply the $500-per-month bonus policy to the 12,000 soldiers now serving under stop-loss, compared with the $600 million-or-so it would cost to also give that benefit to those whose stop-loss terms have already been served. It’s true that with two wars being fought, there may be better uses for that extra $500 million; if the money can be used by the military to keep a few soldiers safe, increase their chances of battlefield success, or bring them home sooner, surely that’s a good and necessary trade.
But wait. The Seattle Times recently reported on $8.5 billion in defense earmarks that made their way into last year’s defense bill—including $588 million for a submarine that neither the Navy nor the Bush administration wanted. This year’s bill has no doubt been stuffed with equal servings of the ridiculous.
It seems unlikely that the stop-loss provision was scaled back solely in deference to more pressing military needs. The measure was introduced by two Democrats—Senator Frank Lautenberg, of New Jersey, and Representative Betty Sutton, of Ohio—who both opposed the troop surge in Iraq. Though there is nothing in the bill’s language about the efficacy of stop-loss, the provision carries an implied criticism of war policy, and treads on the generals’ domain. This can make both sides of the aisle wary, especially during election season—the time for defending one’s patriotism. By endorsing the payments, the reasoning goes, one opposes stop-loss, which means one isn’t giving the military all the tools it needs to succeed, which in turn means one doesn’t support the troops, which means one doesn’t want to win the War on Terror.
That line of reasoning isn’t new. When Senator Jim Webb introduced a more robust GI Bill, many legislators, including Senator John McCain, opposed it, arguing that the added benefits would impair military readiness by encouraging people to leave the service. But if the military has a manpower problem, it needs to do a better job recruiting. Punishing those who have already served the country—many with multiple combat deployments—is a rather shabby solution. Fortunately, a sense of fairness prevailed and the new GI Bill passed. Not so with the stop-loss provision. “This is another manifestation of people not living up to the idea of supporting our troops,” Jason Forrester, director of policy for Veterans for America, told me. “If we treat our military callously, then we’re going to have a hard time retaining them and recruiting them to come in.”