July 1, 2002

In April 2001, the Air Force approved Maj. Don Tyler’s request to retire. His terminal leave was set to begin Nov. 1, 2001. But three months later, on Feb. 12, 2002, Tyler was still on active duty. In fact, he was being pulled, injured, from the wreckage of a special mission aircraft on a snowy mountainside in Afghanistan.

Tyler’s brush with death is an exceptional example of how lives are being changed by an Air Force Stop-Loss program that is keeping thousands of personnel in service involuntarily. Few will be exposed to the dangers Tyler faced in special operations but Stop-Loss indeed is affecting many lives, some profoundly.

Ten months old this month, the USAF Stop-Loss effort is the most ambitious of any service today and the biggest for the Air Force since the all-volunteer force began 30 years ago.

DOD authorized each of the services to implement Stop-Loss programs following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The authority allows each service to retain individuals beyond established dates of separation or retirement. The services generally focus the programs on service members with critical skills.

However, the Air Force initiated its program with a blanket Stop-Loss–halting the loss of any active or reserve member in any skill.

Out of the Public Eye

Americans have seen reports of US forces fighting in Afghanistan. Many have friends or relatives among 80,000-plus Guard and Reserve members mobilized since Sept. 11. But the effect of Stop-Loss on service families largely has escaped public notice. So far it’s a big story only inside the military.

Blocked retirements and separations are causing personal turbulence and angst. Members and their families are torn between a sense of duty and a sense that they’ve done their duty and should be allowed to move on. Frustrations grow for persons in job skills still under Stop-Loss as the country recovers from Sept. 11.

Air Force statistics tell part of the Stop-Loss story. Roughly 31,000 personnel who expected in Fiscal 2002 to face a decision–to separate, to retire, or to extend–are being denied the choice for now. Because many of those 31,000 would have elected to stay anyway, Air Force leaders prefer to use a different statistic: Stop-Loss is keeping just under 8,000 personnel in the Air Force this year involuntarily.

Officials acknowledge the burden, but they also say they had no choice moving to a blanket Stop-Loss in the wake of Sept. 11.

“We have affected people’s lives–people who had plans, who had job opportunities, who served their commitment and were ready to move on with the rest of their lives. We recognize that,” said Maj. Gen. John M. Speigel, Air Force director of personnel force management. “But also, our senior leadership recognized the attack we were under and the sacrifice our people are willing to give in defense of America.”

Air Force officials believe the appalling events of Sept. 11 have deepened the resolve, patience, and sense of service among military people, active and reserve. “The American people are so galvanized in their effort and resolve on this war that everybody recognizes we have to have sacrifices,” said Speigel. This could help soften any long-term negative effect from Stop-Loss.

Still, the depth and breadth of Air Force Stop-Loss is raising questions for policy-makers. Is the Air Force undermanned? When will Stop-Loss end? Can it end before damaging morale or in time to avoid a stampede by talented people who don’t like being locked into jobs

Officials know Stop-Loss can last too long, particularly as the sense of national crisis fades. Air Force leaders are sensitive to concerns already raised that Stop-Loss must be based on real war requirements and not be used to solve retention problems that existed before Sept. 11.

Returning to Steady State

Because this war will be long, said Speigel, “the sooner we can get back to a steady-state rhythm, even if at a higher tempo, the better off we will be.”

The Stop-Loss programs the service used in the Persian Gulf War and for the air campaign over Kosovo were less extensive. However, unlike those conflicts, the Sept. 11 attacks came as a stunning surprise and triggered a massive homeland defense effort, even as forces began to fight overseas.

Given “the uncertainty we faced at the time, the commitment expected of our airmen across the board–active, Guard, Reserve, civilians–[blanket] Stop-Loss was the right decision,” said Speigel.

After Sept. 11, Air Force leaders formed a crisis action team to determine what resources were needed for the new missions at home and abroad. (See “Airpower for the Long Haul,” March 2002, p. 54.) Those included protecting US cities from further terrorism from the air and building an air bridge with tankers and airlifters as the service moved fighters, bombers, ground forces, and equipment to the Afghan theater.

The team decided blanket Stop-Loss was prudent until the full scope of the war and homeland defense missions, and the strain on people and aircraft, became clearer.

“To ensure availability of those assets, the decision was made to put everybody on Stop-Loss,” said Speigel. “That was a big sacrifice for our people. That was not a decision made lightly.”

When USAF’s Stop-Loss order took effect, Maj. Jonathan Holdaway, a 40-year-old F-15 pilot with the 94th Fighter Squadron at Langley AFB, Va., pulled his separation papers. On Sept. 11, Holdaway had been within days of the start of training with American Airlines. His decision to pull his papers was made easier by Sept. 11’s impact on commercial aviation. Airlines furloughed pilots and suspended hiring.

For a few weeks after the attacks, though, Holdaway said he just didn’t want to leave his squadron. “I spent 15 years serving my country,” he said. “It’s a little tough to take yourself out of the game when you are under attack.”

Last December, Holdaway was selected for promotion to lieutenant colonel. He also soon had orders to Saudi Arabia for a year’s unaccompanied tour.

Other pilots pulled their paperwork, too, but many more remain in service because of Stop-Loss. For them and for all personnel and families who thought futures were set, it’s a difficult time. Plans to move to new towns, to begin new jobs, to enroll children in new schools, are delayed indefinitely.

After the first month of blanket Stop-Loss, Air Force officials reviewed the policy and left it unchanged. Wartime missions were still expanding, and the focus of US forces remained “on moving our assets into place to fight the fight, to drop our precision munitions when needed. It took a total commitment,” Speigel said.

For four months, the Air Force froze all separations and retirements except for hardship cases.

No Rush to the Door

By late January, they took another look. This time they allowed release of 24 officer and 40 enlisted job specialties, which affected 5,500 personnel, about a fifth of the 31,000 Stop-Loss population.

“We turned all the lights on and now we’re going through the process of turning some off–the lights we don’t need,” Speigel explained.

The first batch of skills released had only marginal involvement with war operations or homeland security. “The closer you are to being a sortie generator or a trigger-puller, the less chance of being exempted,” explained Lt. Col. Richard Binger, chief of separations at the Air Force Personnel Center in San Antonio.

When the first door was opened, 55 percent of enlisted personnel with expired contracts decided to go ahead with separation or retirement plans. That meant 45 percent elected to stay–a very high percentage, said Air Force officials. For officers, the number of those who decided to withdraw their separation or retirement papers was also high, at about 15 percent, as opposed to a norm of about 2.3 percent. Neither group produced the swarm of departures Air Force leaders had feared.

“We’re trying to do this in a graduated fashion so there isn’t a panic, so there isn’t a rush to the door,” Speigel said.

Since the Air Force did not include the weather observer skill on the first release list, SrA. Joseph Casey, 25, remained with the 1st Operational Support Squadron at Langley in March, five months past his enlistment contract. Casey said he wasn’t upset about losing a bartending job he had lined up. But he remained worried that he would have to scrap plans to return to college this fall in Providence, R.I.

However, Casey said, married colleagues, particularly those with children, were having the toughest time. Some had to turn down high-paying civilian job offers. Some had already sent their families to new cities and homes believing they were about to get out “when all of a sudden, here they are.”

In early April, the Air Force released another 37 officer specialties and 59 enlisted skills, opening the door for 4,400 more personnel. That still left in service about two-thirds of the 31,000 affected by Stop-Loss.

“Our hope is to continue on this glide slope” with more specialties released every two months, said Speigel. “We’re a ways away from landing, but we’re on a glide slope to wean ourselves from Stop-Loss.”

Other Approaches

Stop-Loss authority flows from the President’s mobilization of reservists. When mobilization ends, so must Stop-Loss. Meanwhile, each of the services has used it as necessary.

The Army issued its first Stop-Loss order Nov. 30, 2001, placing a hold on only 994 active duty personnel in Special Forces and aviation fields beginning in January 2002. Since then, Army officials, who elected to freeze war-critical skills by increments, have issued two more Stop-Loss orders. The second order affected reservists as well as active duty personnel and included additional specialities such as civil affairs, psychological operations, and mortuary affairs. The third and, to date, largest increment raised the total personnel affected to 12,540 and included fields such as intelligence, military police, and communications interceptor. By using the incremental approach, the Army’s goal is “to minimize Stop-Loss as much as we can,” said Army Lt. Col. Bob Ortiz, chief of the enlisted professional development branch.

The Navy first implemented Stop-Loss on Oct. 10, 2001, identifying almost 10,000 personnel in some 11 skills, including special operations, security, cryptology, and linguistics. In early March, the Navy revised its Stop-Loss order down to about 4,000 personnel in just four skills: cryptology, security, law enforcement, and certain linguists. The Navy said it expected actually to apply Stop-Loss to only 300 sailors in 2002. “We are looking at this very judiciously,” said Capt. Steve Conn, head of the Navy’s enlisted plans and policy branch at the Pentagon.

Marine Corps officials said 700 Marines will serve an extra six months under Stop-Loss this year. USMC implemented its program Nov. 20, 2001, making it effective in January. Officials said no Marine will be held longer than six months and no retirement plans will be impacted.

The Coast Guard didn’t use Stop-Loss, choosing to handle an expanded port security mission with reservists, retirees voluntarily recalled, and former personnel enticed back into service.

So why did the Air Force need such broad policy

The Air Force has had a bigger role in Operations Enduring Freedom, the war overseas, and Noble Eagle, the protection flights at home, said Speigel.

“The multitude of bases we stood up, in and around the area of operations, the support tail that goes along with the iron–we had a huge commitment from the beginning, putting bombs on target and [establishing] the air bridge to move iron into place, people in the support tail into place, and eventually Marines or Army personnel into place,” Speigel said. “On balance we just had a heavier commitment from the very beginning.”

Needed: 32,000 Airmen

A general officer steering group looked at the stresses on Air Force personnel post-Sept. 11 and concluded the service needs 32,000 more personnel–28,000 active duty and 4,000 reservists–over six years. They should be trained in communications, law enforcement, and intelligence. The Air Force sought Bush Administration support for this plan, including adding 5,000 more active duty members and 2,000 reservists in Fiscal 2003.

“We feel like this is the price of war,” said Speigel. “We also think this reflects the new steady state, [the number needed] to live in an environment of heightened security awareness.”

The Administration declined to support the request, though, and did not send it to Congress. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld first wants to see more effort from the service to eliminate marginal support billets and shift personnel into critical skills.

Would a bigger Air Force before Sept. 11 have made current Stop-Loss unnecessary? Speigel doesn’t think so.

“We still probably would have done Stop-Loss until we knew what the [war] campaign was,” he said. But a bigger force “might have allowed us to turn off those lights a little bit faster.”

The Air Force has taken some steps to grant waivers for personnel who have demonstrated personal needs and who are not in actual war-critical skills. One difference with this Stop-Loss program is that the service gave major commands the authority to approve those waivers. Through May 22, about 82 percent of 3,722 requests had been approved.

Air Force officials can’t predict when Stop-Loss might end.

President Bush and his Cabinet have talked publicly about expanding the war on terrorism, specifically citing Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction. All of that keeps the Stop-Loss situation “fluid,” Speigel said.

“We have always said, on Stop-Loss and the release of [job skills], that this is predicated on what we know. If the world situation changes dramatically, then we will have to go back and reassess.” But, he added, “our leadership is committed to try to get us out of the Stop-Loss business as quickly as they can, understanding the risks associated with that.”

Meanwhile, Stop-Loss is not cheap. Delayed separations and retirements will cost the Air Force up to $500 million, money that will have to be added to a cost-of-war supplemental budget for Fiscal 2002.

Still unclear is the cost, over time, of lower service retention numbers. Retention rates have bounced back within a year after previous Stop-Loss programs, but those were limited to fewer skills and were of shorter duration.

The threat to retention rates is “another reason for us to be on this glide slope,” Speigel said, “to get us out of Stop-Loss and return to some sense of normalcy.”

No Small Deal

Lives have been upended as a result of USAF’s implementation of a servicewide Stop-Loss. Air Force leaders say they recognize the burden that decision has placed on members, and they want to return USAF to a more equitable footing as quickly as possible.

That is no small deal to those caught in Stop-Loss.

One officer whose frustration is rising is Maj. Don Tyler. A navigator on an MC-130P Combat Shadow aircraft with the 9th Special Operations Squadron at Eglin AFB, Fla., Tyler was scheduled to retire in November 2001 but was injured in Afghanistan in February while in Stop-Loss status. He was still on active duty in June.

Because his ill-fated mission in Afghanistan was classified, Air Force officials declined to allow Tyler to be interviewed.

However, his wife, Barbara, said her husband had expected to begin work for a defense contractor in Florida immediately after his retirement. The couple also planned to begin building their “dream house,” she said.

After Tyler’s retirement plan fell victim to Stop-Loss, his unit deployed to Afghanistan. On Feb. 12, his aircraft crashed in eastern Afghanistan. According to a sketchy press release from military authorities, it was not shot down.

“Only through the grace of God, a thick blanket of snow, [and] some skilled piloting did he survive Stop-Loss,” explained a friend of Tyler’s. Of the eight crewmen, all of whom survived, only Tyler was aboard that day because of Stop-Loss.

The crash separated his shoulder, tore his rotator cuff, and caused nerve damage. After surgery, he faced six to nine months of physical therapy with no guarantee he’ll recover full use of his arm. “My husband has been permanently affected,” said Barbara Tyler.

Tyler asked for a Stop-Loss waiver so he could retire. However, Barbara said, his squadron commander recommended denial, saying Tyler is still valuable. In May, his wing commander also disapproved the waiver. The final decision was made by the commander of Air Force Special Operations Command–no waiver.

Meanwhile the family, including two teenage children, had been awash in uncertainty–over the waiver request, whether to begin to build their home, over Don’s job, over whether Don will recover from his injury.

“Those of us caught in Stop-Loss understand you can’t call up your reserves and let your active people go,” said Barbara Tyler. “We understand these people have lives, too. But there comes a point where you are not benefitting morale by holding people who obviously [aren’t able to perform in their specialty].”

Tom Philpott, the editor of “Military Update,” lives in the Washington, D.C., area. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Tricare for Life Hits and Misses,” appeared in the April 2002 issue.