Pentagon officials say they hope to avoid any “stop-loss” orders that would involuntarily keep service members in uniform beyond their current contracts. But that may be necessary if the coronavirus pandemic continues to limit the Defense Department’s ability to recruit and train new troops.
A stop-loss policy, which was widely used at the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, could temporarily halt some or all troops from separating and transitioning back into the civilian world.
The policy was often criticized as a “back-door draft” that erodes the trust of service members and can threaten the military’s long-term ability to recruit and retain service members.
The service branches have already begun offering to voluntarily extend contracts for some service members, but some involuntary measures may be needed, the Pentagon said.
“Given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the nation as a whole and on the military’s ability to recruit and train new service members, the Department is looking at a wide range of options that will ensure enduring national security mission capability,” Lisa Lawrence, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told Military Times.
“While there are many options, stop-loss is one that would only be considered if absolutely necessary and is an alternative that we will work diligently to avoid," she added. “There have been no formal recommendations for implementing stop-loss at this time.”
She did not elaborate as to which services or service members would be most likely to face a stop-loss order.
Nearly 2,000 service members have tested positive for COVID-19, which is caused by the novel coronavirus. Dozens have been hospitalized and one National Guardsman has died.
Military health officials say it is unlikely that the military and its mostly young and healthy personnel will suffer a high death toll from the virus.
But the worldwide measures taken to prevent the spread of the virus are slowing the Defense Department’s pipeline for bringing in new service members.
Most recruiters have stopped meeting face-to-face with prospective recruits, shifting to a virtual effort that could be less effective at meeting the annual goals for bringing in new personnel.
The Army has stopped bringing new recruits into basic training.for a two-week pause starting on Monday. All recruits already in training will continue, but no new ones are being brought in for now.
To keep current soldiers, the Army has offered voluntary, short-term reenlistment contracts with extension options available from three to 11 months. There are about 9,000 soldiers who are within six months of leaving the Army and eligible for those extensions, Army officials said.
The Marine Corps halted the flow of new recruits into one of its boot camp facilities, at Parris Island in South Carolina, but recruit training continues at the recruit depot in San Diego. The Corps is also offering voluntary extensions for Marines with upcoming retirement or separation dates.
The Air Force has shortened the Basic Military Training program at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, in Texas, and are working to reschedule some recruit assessions to better accommodate the social distancing rules and other preventive measures.
The Navy’s boot camp program continues, but there have been reported cases of COVID-19 at the bootcamp facility at Great Lakes, Illinois, and the recruit training staff has been on lockdown there in an effort to prevent the spread of the disease.
Meanwhile, the Navy has also offered to extend service contracts for existing sailors and has also invited recently-separated sailors to return to serve in an effort to maintain the required staffing levels across the fleet.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.