For more than 800 members of the Army's Individual Ready Reserve (IRR), the most memorable part of the holiday season was a surprise stocking-stuffer from the United States Army. It came in the form of a blue and white Western Union Mailgram that ordered them to report for active duty in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Eric, a second-year law student, who completed four years of active duty in 2002, was at his parents' house on Christmas Eve when they handed him what looked like an innocuous piece of mail from the Secretary of the Army. "I was pretty shocked," Eric (not his real name) says. "I went up to my room and hyperventilated for a bit and then came back down and didn't tell anyone for two days. I didn't want to ruin Christmas."
You might remember this practice by the name critics gave it during the 2004 presidential election: the "backdoor draft." In June of that year, the Pentagon announced the initial call-ups of the IRR--a rarely-deployed group of about 114,000 soldiers who have completed their active duty requirements and returned to civilian life. This raised the specter of soldiers being pulled back into military service against their will, generating headlines, controversy and uncomfortable memories of Vietnam. It also proved to be such a headache to administer that in November 2005 the Army appeared to capitulate to pressure by suspending the program. But as In These Times has learned, the program has not been suspended. In exclusive interviews, six soldiers who received mobilization orders expressed anger and frustration about what they say is a bad-faith effort by the Army to wring extra service out of those who are about to complete their service commitment. Nearly all asked that their names be changed in this article for fear of reprisal as they negotiate their responses to these orders.
"Back when people started using the phrase 'backdoor draft,' I was really skeptical," says one ex-ROTC cadet, who strongly opposes the Iraq war. "Now that I've been served papers, it really does feel like that."
All of the officers interviewed who received orders to deploy in late December have one thing in common: They all started active duty in 1998, which means their full 8-year contract with the Army--or Mandatory Service Obligation (MSO)--will expire in May. "We're all coming up on our MSO dates," says Jason, who along with about 40 other members of West Point's Class of 1998 received a call-up. "I get the impression that they did a check to see who they were coming close to losing and went ahead and sent out the orders." Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Pamela Hart denied this, insisting that "no population was singled out."
With only four months left before being officially discharged, Jason and others now face an 18-month tour of active duty in Iraq. "The Army is using two different rules for their benefit," says Paul Trotter, an ex-ROTC cadet who has already served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. "They've got one rule that says we can call you up from the IRR at any point before your obligation is done. They've got another rule that says once you're on active duty, we can Stop-Loss you so you have to stay." The Army's Stop-Loss program, initiated in November 2002, allows it to indefinitely extend the term of active duty soldiers past their scheduled release date.
That means that for thousands of soldiers, the contract they signed pledging 8 years of service no longer holds any weight. In January 2004, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld signed an authorization for involuntary mobilization. The IRR was last called up was during the first Gulf War. But then, soldiers were deployed to backfill Army positions in Germany and other bases rather than deployed directly into the combat theater. "When I was in the army, it was clear that if you're in the IRR, the only time you're going to go off to war is World War III," says Kevin O'Meara, a 43-year-old former Army human resources officer. O'Meara received a mobilization order in 2004 from which he was subsequently exempted. "The IRR was not designed for what was supposed to be this little jaunt in the desert."
"When I signed my contract, the impression was that the IRR was rarely used, only in a national emergency," says Jason. "I didn't think it would be used as a manpower tool to support an occupation."
From the moment the IRR call-up was announced in the summer of 2004, the Army had a difficult time enforcing its order. The Army was forced to abandon attempts to mobilize thousands of officers who had completed their 8-year commitment but hadn't sent in the paperwork to remove their names from the IRR rolls. As of December 11, 2005, of the 7,380 soldiers who received orders to mobilize, 3,521 have filed for exemptions or delays and nearly 500 have simply not shown up.
On November 18 the Washington Post reported that the Army was throwing in the towel. The Army has "suspended plans to expand an unwieldy, 16-month-old program to call up inactive soldiers for military duty," the Post reported, "after thousands have requested delays or exemptions or failed to show up."
For many soldiers, this meant they were off the hook. "I felt relieved after that Washington Post article," says Jason, the West Point grad. "Then on the 20th of December, I get the mailgram."
Lt. Col. Hart says that the December mobilization orders are all part of the original involuntary mobilization authorized in 2004 and that the Army will continue to issue such orders until it has successfully deployed 5,600 active-duty soldiers from the ranks of the IRR. So far, nearly 4,000 have deployed.
"We have 114,000 soldiers in the IRR and we're only looking at 7,000 who've received orders," Hart says. "Now mind you, it can be traumatic for the individual solider, but looking at the big picture it's understandable."
The news of the orders quickly spread among soldiers, as many scrambled to figure out their options. O'Meara, who has covered the issue on his blog, the Command T.O.C. , says nearly two dozen soldiers have contacted him, seeking advice on how to file for exemptions. Most exemptions, he says, are initially denied, but many succeed on appeal. So far, the Army has issued 1,616 of them. Every soldier interviewed for this article said they intend to file for an exemption based on health, family or schooling circumstances.
What frustrates these soldiers the most is a sense that the Army isn't being straight with them. "Back in July in '04 when I left active duty, if they'd said 'You can't leave, you have to do another tour,' I wouldn't have been happy about it," says Paul Trotter, who is seeking an exemption so he can continue to help home-school his autistic, seven-year-old son. "But I'd have much rather done that than have a life set up and a job and moved and all that stuff and then be told pull chalks out of that and go back to Iraq."
More confounding, each soldier had received phone calls and/or emails shortly before their mailgrams asking if they'd like to volunteer for the same deployment to which they've since been ordered. "I want to emphasize that we are only establishing a volunteer roster at this time," wrote an Army Career Management officer in an email to Jason two weeks before he received his mailgram.
The day after receiving his orders, Jason called the Career officer thinking there had been some mistake. "She said she was kind of upset with the way it had been handled," he says. "It turns out they had intended all along to call up everyone they contacted. It was never going to be voluntary."
The Army's effort to pull soldiers into active duty service just a few months before their contracts expire suggests that despite talk of draw-downs, military leaders anticipate that Operation Iraqi Freedom will need every last body they can get for the foreseeable future.
"There's this lack of courage on the part of politicians to admit that they need more bodies to do this," Eric says. "If the Army started a general draft there'd be public outcry, but because they're targeting people in the military who fear reprisal, people stay quiet about it and try to deal with it on their own."
"The basis of this is not a national emergency," says one officer, who echoed the sentiments of the group. "What this is is poor personnel planning."