WASHINGTON Dec 6, 2004 — Eight soldiers filed a lawsuit Monday challenging the Army's policy requiring them to serve longer than the terms of their enlistment contracts.
The soldiers, believed to be the first active-duty personnel to file such a lawsuit, want a judge to order the Army to immediately release them from service.
They say they weren't informed when they signed up that they could be kept in the service beyond their discharge date. The Army says the policy is needed to ensure there are enough experienced soldiers on the battlefield.
David Qualls, one of the plaintiffs, said he signed up in July 2003 for a one-year stint in the Arkansas National Guard but has been told he will remain on active duty in Iraq until next year.
"What this boils down to in my opinion is a question of fairness," he said at a news conference announcing the lawsuit. "I served five months past my one-year obligation and I feel that it's time to let me go back to my wife."
Under the Pentagon's "stop-loss" program, the Army can extend enlistments during war or national emergencies as a way to promote continuity and cohesiveness. The policy, invoked in June, was authorized by an emergency executive order signed by President Bush three days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It also was employed during the buildup to the 1991 Gulf War.
The Army has defended the policy, saying the fine print on every military contract mentions the possibility that time of service may change under existing laws and regulations.
"The nation is at war, that's the key to this entire issue," said Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, an Army spokesman. "We're just using stop-loss for those troops deployed in the war on terror."
Hilferty said about 7,000 active-duty soldiers have had their contracts extended under the policy, and it could affect up to 40,000 reserve soldiers depending how long the war in Iraq lasts.
The lawsuit says the contracts are misleading because they make no explicit reference to the policy.
Jules Lobel, an attorney for the soldiers, accused the government of using "a classic bait-and-switch operation" to lure recruits.
Other soldiers have filed similar cases over the past year, but this was believed to be the first by active-duty personnel.
Lobel and other attorneys representing the soldiers are affiliated with the liberal advocacy group Center for Constitutional Rights, which has sponsored lawsuits alleging human rights abuses by U.S. forces against prisoners in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Qualls, the only plaintiff identified publicly, is home on leave but is scheduled to return to Iraq on Friday unless a judge grants his request for a temporary restraining order.
Qualls, a truck driver in civilian life, said his income has dropped 80 percent since his deployment and his wife and daughter are taking medication to cope with the stress of his absence.
The other seven soldiers involved in the case are listed as John Does to protect their privacy. They are now serving in Iraq or are in Kuwait en route to Iraq, Lobel said.
Qualls and two other plaintiffs enlisted under one-year "Try One" contracts that have expired. Four others are serving under multiyear contracts that have run out. The remaining soldier's contract doesn't expire until spring, but he has been told to expect to serve in Iraq beyond the expiration date.
The lawsuit names Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other Army officials as defendants.
In San Diego on Monday, Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Pablo Paredes, 23, refused to board his ship Monday as sailors and Marines deployed for the Persian Gulf.
"I don't want to be a part of a ship that's taking 3,000 Marines over there, knowing a hundred or more of them won't come back," he said. "I can't sleep at night knowing that's what I do for a living."
Military officials did not immediately comment on his actions. He could face a court-martial, a dishonorable discharge and possible time in a military jail.