Stop Payment

Why did Congress cut back on its plan to give soldiers additional compensation in recognition of their extended service under stop-loss?

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.”

The original proposal called for $1,500 for each month under stop-loss. Enough legislators balked that the $1,500 soon dropped to $500, which was approved by the House subcommittee. In the Senate, the payments met further resistance. “We thought it was a no-brainer,” a legislative aide who worked on the bill said. “Why would you not want to compensate a soldier who is being forced away from his home and family, and forced to risk his life?” Proponents considered a compromise of $200 per month for those whose stop-loss has already been served, but opted to stay at $500 and work on retroactivity next year. The bill requires that the Pentagon conduct a feasibility study for retroactive payments.

Congress can move with speed and generosity when it wants to, as evidenced by the ever-growing list of financial crisis handouts—$100 billion here, $100 billion there. The September 11 Victims Compensation Fund was quite generous as well.  The fund distributed $7 billion to the families of the nearly 3,000 killed and 2,600 injured in the attacks—as a tradeoff for not suing the airlines—with awards averaging $2 million for the deceased and $400,000 for the injured. (By contrast, service members killed in action receive life insurance payouts, which the Department of Defense in 2005 boosted from $250,000 to a maximum of $400,000. And of course, this is paid for through premiums, not largesse.)

Stop-loss can make sense, boosting a unit’s cohesion and combat-effectiveness by ensuring that soldiers train, deploy, and fight together, instead of coming and going, onesy twosy, as they did in Vietnam. I understand the need for stop-loss and didn’t harbor resentment when I fell under its wheels—the situation on the ground changed, which required a speedy and sustained infusion of more troops. I accepted that, and still do. I also returned uninjured. Others didn’t. A close friend was killed during his third Iraq deployment, under stop-loss. While the services don’t track the number of stop-lossed personnel killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, a quick Google search shows there have been many. Sometimes, that’s a requirement of the job. Everyone signs the contract aware of the possibility. But stop-loss also manifests itself in the mundane—delayed college plans, postponed weddings, missed births. For those who did come home, acknowledgement of the inconvenience would have been a nice gesture.