By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Army has issued orders preventing thousands of soldiers designated to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan from leaving the military even when their volunteer service commitment ends, officials said on Wednesday.
The latest "stop loss" and "stop movement" orders, broader than others issued previously, were a further sign of increasing stress on the Army as the Pentagon strives to maintain adequate troop levels in the two conflicts.
Lt. Gen. Franklin Hagenbeck, the Army's personnel chief, told reporters it would be wrong to see the move as a symptom of desperation but acknowledged that the Army was "stretched."
The Army issued the orders for active-duty soldiers and reservists in all units that will deploy outside the United States for future missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hagenbeck said the orders were open-ended, and could be in place for several years while the Army reorganizes itself into smaller, more-interchangeable units. The orders were meant to protect the cohesiveness of deployed units by keeping together soldiers who have worked and trained together, he said.
The "stop loss" order means that soldiers who otherwise could leave the service when their volunteer commitments expire, starting 90 days before being sent, will be compelled to remain to the end of their overseas deployment and up to another 90 days after they come home.
A "stop movement" order blocks soldiers from shifting to new assignments during the restricted period.
The Army previously has issued such orders covering some troops in the two conflicts. Since the attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, some 45,000 soldiers have been affected by such orders, Hagenbeck said.
Critics argue that preventing soldiers from leaving the military at the end of their contractual obligation was a breach of trust, and undermined the concept of the all-volunteer military.
Without "stop loss," the Army would be forced to continuously replace thousands of soldiers in deployed units as their service commitments expired, Hagenbeck said.
"The rationale is to have cohesive, trained units going to war together. What you don't want to have happen is to walk out on the battlefield and meet each other for the first time and shake hands. And that's happened to me and all my predecessors, and we cannot do that. That puts soldiers lives at risk," Hagenbeck said.
Troops were eager to go to places like Iraq and Afghanistan, he said. "Soldiers want to go do this. This, by and large, is why the joined the Army," Hagenbeck said.
Army spokesmen were unable to give a figure for how many soldiers would be affected beyond saying it would be in the thousands.
The Pentagon has already taken steps to meet its plans to keep the total of 138,000 troops in Iraq to the end of 2005.
About 20,000 troops in Iraq were ordered to remain three months beyond their promised departure date. The Pentagon is moving to Iraq 3,600 soldiers from South Korea, where they have guarded against aggression from North Korea. And the Army is considering deploying units that until now have merely played the role of "enemy forces" in training exercises in the United States.