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What Is Stop-Loss Military Policy?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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Because the modern military is primarily composed of volunteer enlistees, contract law is just as much of a consideration for military commanders as combat training or logistics. Every new soldier is contractually obligated to provide at least eight years of military service, even if only part of that time is spent on active duty. Eventually a soldier may become part of a reserve unit until he or she reaches that eighth year or voluntarily re-enlists. A stop-loss military policy can change all of those circumstances for certain soldiers during a time of war.

The date which officially establishes the end of a soldier's military service obligation is known as the end of terms of service or ETS date. Ostensibly, this ETS date is fixed and unassailable from the soldier's point of view. During a time of war or other emergency need for trained personnel, however, that ETS date can be overridden by presidential or congressional order through the Pentagon. This "stop-loss military policy" order can legally force a selected soldier to involuntary extend his or her military obligation up to six months after the end of a war.

Under a stop-loss military policy, a selected soldier, reservist or guardsman can also be prevented from transferring from a war zone to a new assignment, called a permanent change of station or PCS in military jargon. If a certain soldier's skills are deemed critical to the success of a combat mission, such as a helicopter pilot with battlefield experience, then he or she can be ordered to remain in a war zone instead of moving on to a new assignment in a more secure location.

The stop-loss military policy does allow some military personnel to voluntarily "separate" from active duty before the stop-loss order would take effect, but this action can only be taken after completing a often-involuntary set of other duties. Because the stop-loss military policy is clearly included in the fine print of a soldier's service contract, pursuing legal action to prevent an involuntary extension of military obligation or a forced return to combat conditions is extremely difficult.

The loss of trained soldiers in mission-critical positions following the Vietnam War spurred the United States Congress to pass legislation which created the original stop-loss military policy. The power to force a volunteer soldier to remain in a state of involuntary military service, however, was designed to be implemented only during times of war or extreme national emergency. Stop-loss was first used during Desert Storm, the first Gulf War. It has also been invoked during the Bosnian conflict and during the second Gulf War in Iraq.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Historical Index, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By Buster29 — On Oct 04, 2014

I can see where a stop-loss policy could create a real financial and emotional hardship for military families. I would think that a soldier's ETS date would become an extremely significant event, and to have that date delayed for up to six months would be tough to handle.

By Cageybird — On Oct 03, 2014

My cousin was a helicopter pilot for the US Army, and he thought his time was up after he did a tour of duty in Iraq. He made plans to go back home and become a private instructor. A week before his ETS date, however, he received paperwork that changed everything. The Army didn't have enough helicopter pilots with his battlefield experience to transport troops into a mountain range in Afghanistan. He had to serve 6 more months under the stop-loss policy. He wasn't happy about it at all, but his commanding officer pointed out the small print in his service contract.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Historical Index, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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