What is a “Stop-Loss” order? Stop-Loss has been described as an involuntary extension of a currently-serving military member’s term of active service. In such cases, the servicemember’s original Estimated Time In Service date (ETS) is extended beyond the original date specified in the servicemember’s legally binding commitment to the military.
If the service member was due to retire or separate in a given month, that date would be suspended under stop-loss and the servicemember’s active duty commitment is extended to a new date.
Stop loss can also affect permanent change of station moves in a similar fashion to the COVID-19 stop-movement orders issued in the first quarter of 2020. With stop-loss, PCS moves could be suspended in order to maintain unit integrity or to prevent shortages in certain types of staffing for mission-critical operations.
What You Need To Know About Stop-Loss
The key to understanding how stop-loss works is in the legally binding contract each new recruit signs when joining the military. There are two types of service commitment; an overall promise to be available for duty.
Let’s say a new recruit discusses her options with a recruiter for the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Space Force or Air Force. The recruit decides to sign up for a four year term of active duty service. But that does NOT mean that the recruit only has a four year commitment.
There is also a period of “inactive service.” The recruit may sign up for a four-year enlistment but there is an additional four years required. That four years does not require the new recruit to perform active duty, and you are not paid for that four years. You are essentially available to be recalled for duty should the military encounter a need to call up those who are inactive.
How Stop Loss Is Communicated To Troops
Stop-loss orders are made at the appropriate level (in some past situations, the President has delegated the authority to issue stop-loss to the service chiefs such as the Secretary of the Navy, Secretary of the Air Force, etc.) and communicated to the troops.
How? Electronic messaging, Commander’s Calls, unit stop-loss briefings given in a town-hall style meeting or video, etc. Each affected unit orderly room or command support staff has information on the order when it is made (no stop loss orders are in effect at the time of this writing) and more.
Troops who are affected by stop loss may notice a code or other identifier, or their military records flagging them as being unable to retire or separate. All military services have their own ways of dealing with enlistment codes, stop-loss, and related procedures.
Stop Loss Is Legal
Stop-loss can extend the servicemember’s active commitment to go beyond the initial contract and include active service that cuts into the inactive reserve time described above. This is explained in the contract and is how the Department of Defense has successfully fielded lawsuits challenging the legality of stop-loss.
U.S. courts seem to consistently find that an extension of enlistment is permitted and legal based on the nature of the legally binding contract the DoD and new recruits enter into together.
Two Types Of Stop-Loss
Stop-loss measures can be directed at certain career fields, but also certain military units.
Career field-based stop-loss is meant to prevent the loss of critical skills in that career field. These skills may or may not have security clearance implications, and it’s never safe to assume that a career field is immune to stop-loss just because it has no Classified or Top Secret classification requirements.
A unit-based stop-loss order would prevent specific military units from losing essential personnel and skills. A good example of a unit-based stop loss involves orders hypothetically aimed at units coming to and from Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom to keep consistent troop levels and prevent retirements or separations from those units.
In the past, troops affected by stop-loss who belong to a unit scheduled for deployment would be subject to potential orders keeping them in uniform for the deployment and for 90 days following that deployment.
But that is not an across-the-board, arbitrary number. Troops should not expect stop-loss orders to be identical in duration or parameters to similar orders given in the past. Such orders are structured on a case-by-case basis to best serve the circumstances they are needed for.
A Brief History Of Stop-Loss Orders
Some form of stop-loss has been with the United States Military at least since the Civil War; one of the first recorded cases of a legal challenge to an involuntary extension of a military service commitment is found during the Civil War when a Union soldier sued the government for extending his three-month service commitment.
The suit failed, and the soldier was confined for a short time for what some sources describe as “mutinous conduct.”
At the time, the phrase “stop-loss” wasn’t used for such needs, and the modern incarnation of the practice has a definite 20th century origin. While some sources report the first contemporary use of a stop-loss order came during the Vietnam War era, the start of what could be described as the modern version of this policy is found in the United States Code, Title 10 from 1984.
This policy allows the Commander-In-Chief to suspend rules for promotions, retirements, and separation in times of national emergency, or when the President calls up Reserve components. Stop-Loss saw some revisions in the early 2000s, but Public Law 110-329, Consolidated Security, Disaster Assistance, and Continuing Appropriations Act, 2009 further codified the policy.
However, some including the Defense Secretary at the time felt that stop-loss broke faith with troops affected, and by 2011 no branch of military service was actively pursuing the measure.
Stop Loss In Modern Military Missions
Stop-loss orders were given during the following contemporary periods of military operations:
- Persian Gulf War
- After the 9/11 attacks
- Global War on Terror
The policy has been legally challenged several times. However, federal courts have consistently found that military service members contractually agree that their term of service may be involuntarily extended until the end of their obligated service.
Stop-Loss And American Culture
The stop-loss issue rose to prominence in American culture in the first decade of the new century. In 2008 the Hollywood film Stop-Loss debuted, produced by MTV Films and starring Abbie Cornish, Channing Tatum, Ryan Phillipe, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Directed by Kimberly Peirce, the film is about how stop-loss affects some military families. It opened to negative reviews, but 2007 and 2008 were bad years for war films; Rendition, plus Redacted, and In the Valley of Elah also suffered at the box office at the time.
Stop-Loss the film raised the issue of what some label a “reverse draft” or “back-door draft”, but moviegoers might not be aware that DoD stop-loss policies have been (more or less) consistently applied in times of major conflict including wars in Iraq, the global war on terror following 9/11, etc.
The policy may be controversial, but its use has not been historically arbitrary in spite of whatever impressions are left by Hollywood films. Some might assume the military uses stop-loss anytime they have an overseas mission, but since 2009 the following stop-loss activities should be noted–the U.S. Army was the last service to still use stop-loss in 2009 but since then:
- Army active duty stop-loss ended January 1, 2010
- Army Reserve stop-loss ended August 2009
- Army National Guard stop-loss ended September 2009
- Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced a no-stop-loss policy in 2009 that sought to keep the authorization, but effectively end the practice.
Can Stop-Loss Happen Today?
In early April 2020, some headlines openly speculated about a return to stop-loss procedures as a response to COVID-19 pandemic mission requirements, but at the time of this writing no such plans are known. It’s always a possibility in times of national emergency, but at the time of this writing no plans to return to Stop-Loss are available to the public, if any.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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