Thousands of soldiers who thought they were about to get out of the Army, and open new chapters in their lives, are about to find out that instead they're headed to a combat zone -- for a year.
They have completed the terms of their enlistment, but once the Army announces what units will go to Iraq next, as it's expected to do any day, the soldiers in those units will discover that for now, there's no way out --even though they have completed the terms of their enlistment.
That's because every Army unit in Iraq and Afghanistan, and every unit with orders to go there, has been hit by what the Pentagon calls Stop Loss, a policy designed to keep combat units together by preventing individual soldiers from leaving.
When 60 Minutes started asking questions about Stop Loss, an internal Army e-mail called it "a potentially dangerous story." The topic is so sensitive that soldiers who wanted to complain about it would talk to us only if we concealed their identities. Correspondent David Martin reports.
"I have family that refer to me as a prisoner of war by my own country," says one sergeant, who planned to retire after serving 20 years in the Army.
He got caught by Stop Loss after his unit, the First Calvary Division out of Fort Hood, Texas, received orders for Iraq.
"It affects thousands of us, who are out there serving, and have done our time," says the sergeant. "You've got tons of soldiers that have, have served honorably to point. Why can they not retire?"
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, 45,000 soldiers have been ordered to stay on active duty. At first, Stop Loss was used only to hold onto soldiers with specialized skills, such as Special Operations Forces. But once the occupation of Iraq wound up requiring far more troops than the administration had bargained for, entire divisions were hit by Stop Loss.
"There were a few weeks there that a whole lot of us were really bent out of shape about this. I mean, you almost feel betrayed by the organization you served. But when we get on the ground, we'll do what we have to do," says the sergeant. "I've done and gone everywhere they've told me to do. How, how much more do you have to go?"
60 Minutes took the sergeant's complaints straight to the top, to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Pete Schoomaker.
"I'm disappointed he feels that way because I think that somebody that did 20 years in the Army ought to be able to recognize that there's a greater good than the individual," says Schoomaker, who issued the latest rounds of Stop Loss orders. "I wish we didn't have a situation that required us to have this level of sacrifice, but we do."
Stop Loss may be a good deal for the Army, but is it fair for the soldiers who were planning to get out?
"Well, these are extraordinary times. I don't find soldiers calling it a raw deal," says Schoomaker. "Now, I'm not saying there's not exceptions out there, that it's a raw deal. But this is difficult on all of us. I mean, all of us are giving up a lot to do this, but it's important to do."
A worse deal, Schoomaker says, would be to repeat the mistake of Vietnam. Units in the thick of battle were in constant turnover, with combat veterans going home one by one as soon as their enlistments expired, while inexperienced soldiers trickled in to take their place.
With Stop Loss, troops train together, go to war together and come home together. And to Schoomaker, that's the way to run an Army.
But how much longer is the Army going to continue using Stop Loss? "As long as it's necessary as a management tool," says Schoomaker. "But see, I don't look at it as a negative. I see it as a positive management tool. That's the way we've had it and that's the way we've always used it."
Army Public Affairs, however, see it as very sensitive. That's what 60 Minutes found out when we were shown an Army e-mail about "CBS News Coverage":
"Although this story has an obvious risk associated with it, the mitigating factor is that we choose the soldiers for the interviews . . . Good soldiers with good attitudes can indeed take a substantial edge off this potentially dangerous story . . . Please send me names . . . I will ensure detailed media training and screening."
The public affairs officer who wrote that memo introduced Martin to Stephen Bell and his wife Robin. He's a master sergeant headed for a one-year deployment to Iraq even though he was coming up on 20 years in the Army.
"I would have been able, if I hadn't hit the Stop Loss, to submit my retirement paperwork today," says Bell. "That's exactly what I'd planned on doing."
Did he think it was unfair? "For me, no," says Bell. "I've been in, I know that, you know, the needs of the nation, the needs of the Army are gonna take precedence over your personal wants."
And for his wife, Robin, the Army has the final say: "We don't have a choice, so we'll just have to work through what, you know, we have to do."
On the surface, the Bells are resigned to Stephen's unexpected year in Iraq. "We're gonna come out the other end stronger because of it, and I think probably my biggest concern is her," says Bell.
"I mean, you know, this weekend she was going to a baby shower, and the girl hosting it found out 30 minutes before the shower that her husband had been killed. She won't talk about it, but I could see the stress."
One man who doesn't have to hide his face or his emotions is former Army captain Andrew Exum.
"The trumpet needs to be sounded pretty loudly that these guys that have sacrificed a lot for America are now being asked to sacrifice even more," says Exum.
His unit wasn't hit by Stop Loss, so now he's a civilian fighting a public relations battle for friends who have already done two tours in Afghanistan and are now headed back to Iraq with the 10th Mountain Division.
"A lot of those guys were supposed to go home to California to start school or back home to start a new career this summer, and then they got hit with Stop Loss," says Exum.
"Well, obviously, they're frustrated. ... They still are proud to serve their country, but now I think they feel that they're kind of let down by a lot of the civilian leadership, because obviously we didn't plan on having 138,000 troops in Iraq at this time."
Exum adds that these soldiers also know "that they're bearing the brunt of this, this war in Iraq and Afghanistan."
So why aren't we hearing more from these soldiers, if they are so frustrated?
"They can't," says Exum. "Their First Amendment Rights are not the same as, you know, Andrew Exum who left the Army a week-and-a-half ago."
Army officers insist that while individual soldiers may be disgruntled, there is no evidence that Stop Loss is causing widespread morale problems among the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One retired general told 60 Minutes that forcing soldiers to remain on active duty is like a canary in the mine – a warning sign that the Army, which arguably has been more affected by Sept. 11 than any institution in America, is in distress.
The Army is less than half the size it was 15 years ago, with just over 500,000 troops on active duty. Yet it is fighting two wars with no end in sight, and has a host of other longstanding commitments such as Korea.
Is the Army big enough today to perform all these missions?
"I think it is extremely hard-pressed," says Tom White, who was secretary of the Army until last year, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld abruptly fired him.
White supports using Stop Loss to keep units together, but he repeatedly clashed with Rumsfeld over whether the Army had enough soldiers.
"His view was basically that the services have not made efficient use of the manpower that they currently have," says White. "Therefore, until we had squeezed all the blood out of the structure and everything else, that we should not go in for an increase in manpower levels. And I think he holds that view to this day."
But who's getting squeezed?
"Well, there's no question," says White. "It's very, very clear that the burden of the war on terrorism has fallen to the individual soldiers and their families."
"You know the suspicion here is that the Secretary of Defense does not want to admit that he miscalculated the number of troops that would be needed for the occupation of Iraq," Martin says to Schoomaker.
"Here's the real problem. Thirty thousand people would cost us another $5 billion a year that we would have to find within our budget," says Schoomaker, who has the legal capability to make the Army as large as he wants. He adds, however, that he doesn't think "we need to make it much bigger."
Schoomaker himself has been hit by a four-star kind of Stop Loss. He'd been out of the Army for more than two years when Rumsfeld passed over every single general in uniform and called him back to active duty to be the Army's new chief of staff.
"I had a business. I have a family . . . They're not with me in Washington. They're elsewhere," says Schoomaker. "This is not business as usual, and when you're in the military service, they don't call it 'service' for nothing. I mean, it's about giving more than you get."
"War requires sacrifice. Who has been asked to sacrifice, aside from the active duty military?" asks Exum. "I mean, right now, you're asking a very small professional Army to bear all of the sacrifices for what's ultimately going to be a very long and very costly war."
This is a story of two soldiers -- one soldier who wanted to retire but couldn't because his unit was headed to Iraq. And another soldier who was able to quit and is speaking out for those who can't.
"The thing with soldiers is, they can vote with their feet every four years about. Whenever they re-enlist, they can either decide to get in the Army, stay in the Army or get out of the Army," says Exum.
"Well, when you take that option away from soldiers, you know, you're saying something pretty significant. You're saying that no longer are we -- that the voluntary military has, in essence, ceased to exist."
Copyright 2004 CBS. All rights reserved.