Thursday, April 26, 2007

Soldier's ticket out of Iraq may backfire

Spc. Joel Trainor is a 22-year-old combat medic from Seattle who spent a year in Iraq. He returned home weary of bloodshed and eager to avoid a return trip that would separate him from his wife and infant daughter.

So in February, Trainor re-enlisted in the Army for three more years.

That might seem like an odd way to try to stay out of the war. But Trainor believed re-enlistment was the only way to avoid an involuntary extension of his contract that would send him back to combat. Re-enlistment officers told him re-upping would allow him to transfer to a job at Fort Lewis, he said.

"Absolutely, if I had a choice, I would have gotten out of the Army this year," said Trainor, whose initial contract with the military was set to end this September. "That wasn't going to happen."

In recent weeks, Trainor has learned that he may wind up back in Iraq after all.

His commanders with the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell in Kentucky told him his battalion is short of medics, and they've balked at signing his transfer to Fort Lewis.

Trainor's story offers an unusual window into wartime re-enlistments. Cash bonuses, education benefits and other incentives have helped the Army meet or exceed re-enlistment quotas that are crucial to maintaining troop strength.

For some, another powerful motivator is the desire to avoid a return to war. Sometimes, the only way to do that is to re-up for another stint in the Army, and thus gain a transfer out of an Iraq-bound unit.

In his battalion of 700 soldiers, Trainor says, he can count about a dozen such transfers.

Army officials confirm that some soldiers who don't want to return to Iraq have re-enlisted to try to gain a transfer to other posts. "There's nothing dishonorable about wanting to keep serving, but not necessarily to serve there [in Iraq]," said Master Sgt. Terry Webster, a Fort Campbell public-affairs officer.

Army policy

Trainor returned from his initial tour in Iraq last September and was looking forward to leaving the Army.

He wanted to sample life as a University of Washington pre-med student. He also relished the chance to spend more time with his wife, Sarah, who had suffered two strokes before giving birth to their daughter, Lorelei.

But he was trapped by an Army policy, known as "stop-loss," that requires soldiers to remain with a unit that is within 90 days of deployment overseas.

Under the policy, thousands of soldiers have served in Iraq beyond the number of years that they originally contracted to serve in the Army. For many, the extension might be months; for others it may be a year or more.

The Army maintains that the stop-loss policy is essential to fielding cohesive units during war. Critics call it a back-door draft that violates the spirit of a volunteer Army.

Trainor learned that his unit was scheduled to return to Iraq this summer, and realized stop-loss would require him to join them for another 12- to 15-month tour of duty.

Until a few weeks ago, Trainor thought he had found a way to avoid war duty by re-signing for a bonus of almost $11,000 and selecting a transfer to Fort Lewis.

After discussions with re-enlistment officers at Fort Campbell, Trainor believed he could transfer to Fort Lewis this spring, so long as he signed his new service contract before Feb. 22. At the new post, Trainor believed, he could work in a stateside job for at least another year.

Then, in early March, Trainor got word from the re-enlistment officers that too many soldiers were leaving his battalion. That made him subject to another Army policy known as "stop-move" — meaning his transfer would not go through.

Trainor felt betrayed. The Army taught the importance of honor, and he believed that respecting a verbal agreement was the honorable thing to do.

"It [the transfer] wasn't chiseled in stone, but that was the guidance that I was given," Trainor said. "I expect that if somebody is going to make that sort of claim, they are going to back it up. I wasn't told that by some punk kid with no rank."

Some written contracts, such as Trainor's, state a new post of service and authorize the soldier the right to stay there for at least 12 months. However, they do not guarantee when the transfer will take place, according to a copy of Trainor's contract.

The contract appears to allow for his redeployment to Iraq, and then a later transfer to Fort Lewis.

Army officials say those contracts — not verbal assurances — carry the most weight.

"It depends case by case, and — of course — if the soldier looked at the fine print in the enlistment contract, the needs of the Army trump everything else," said Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, a Pentagon spokesman.

Officials say they have met more than 130 percent of the re-enlistment goals for the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell. Most of these soldiers have opted to stay with the unit.

The officials acknowledge that credibility is an important element of successful re-enlistment efforts. Trainor's concerns — and his transfer request — remain under review, according to Lt. Col. Ed Loomis, a Fort Campbell public-affairs officer.

Trainor's mother, Judi Trainor, of Seattle, has written letters to the Washington congressional delegation and phoned Fort Campbell re-enlistment officers to plead for the transfer.

"Last week, they finally cut me off and said they couldn't talk to me anymore," Judi Trainor said.

Trainor, a physical therapist, said she fretted so much during her son's deployment that she was unable to hold down a job. She stayed at home, awaiting the moments when she could instant-message her son.

By Hal Bernton
Seattle Times staff reporter

March 29, 2007

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President George W. Bush's statement in March 2006 after 3 yrs of war "a future President will have to resolve war in Iraq"


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