BRANCACCIO: With the number of troops in Iraq now at record highs, the strain it's putting on the U.S. military has radically intensified a debate heard from Korea to Kosovo: should the United States be the world's policeman?
Already, the Pentagon's efforts to field the troops needed for the war have raised serious questions about the fairness, legitimacy
and the hardship caused by the military's staffing policies. Bryan Myers produced our report.
Old soldiers may never die, as the saying goes, but these days, they're finding it hard to fade away. Just ask Rick Howell of Cottondale, Alabama.
During the late 1980's and much of the 90's, Howell was an Army helicopter pilot. His duties took him around the globe, everywhere from patrolling the DMZ in Korea, to fighting drug traffickers off the coast of Central America. But after nearly ten years behind the controls, Howell wanted to move on with his life.
RICK HOWELL: I mean, I wanted to have a family, a wife, and a home, and a little baby. I had always dreamed of having a little baby.
And when you are in the military as a Black Hawk pilot, I mean, you are gone three, 3.5 weeks a month out of every month. So there is no way I could have been married, let alone have a child.
BRANCACCIO: So in 1997, Howell left the Army. Soon, his dreams came true. He met his wife Tina. And last year, they celebrated the arrival of son Clayton.
Today, Howell has a successful career as a manager for a local freight company. It's been eight years since he's put on a uniform. So imagine his surprise when, several months ago, Tina opened a letter the Army sent him.
RICK HOWELL: She read it and you know, I guess after the first couple of lines, it said, you know, "effective such and such date, you have been recalled to active duty." You know, she started crying uncontrollably, and I said, "Now look, I will be home in just a minute. I mean, it's just a mistake, don't worry about it."
BRANCACCIO: Howell assumed he was retired he had separation papers from the Army. So Howell called up the Army's personnel office outside Washington DC. They told him to look at those exit papers again.
RICK HOWELL: The problem is, on your exit document, it says, "service member incurs an additional service obligation in accordance with AR such, such, and such, in you know, fine print, like at the bottom of a used car contract. Nothing against used car salesmen, but at the bottom of that contract is some real fine print.
BRANCACCIO: As it turns out, Howell was on a list of soldiers known as the "Individual Ready Reserve," or IRR. When soldiers leave active duty and re-enter civilian life, there's a period of several years in which the army has the right to call them back. Former officers like Howell he was major can be on the hook until age 60. For a family man that far along in life, that can cause real problems.
TINA HOWELL: Financially, I would have to quit my job and stay at home and basically take care and raise our child on my own.
RICK HOWELL: It will literally be impossible to do this. So it could financially devastate us.
BRANCACCIO: What the Army told Howell next made his blood boil.
RICK HOWELL: The exact statement was, "I don't care about your personal problems. You will go where the hell I tell you to go, and you will do what the hell I tell you to do."
BRANCACCIO: Rick Howell is not the only former soldier to be so rudely awakened. Over the last several months, the Army has called up thousands of Individual Ready Reservists. The Army maintains it has the right to do so. But the fact that they're going after people like Howell is a symptom of a larger problem: the Army is short of troops to fight in Iraq, and they're resorting to all sorts of stop gap measures to find them.
Consider Howell. Even he admits he's pretty much the bottom of the barrel. You see, Howell's a disabled veteran.
RICK HOWELL: While I was in the military, I had an accident. My right elbow, when I hit the ground, my right elbow was crushed. It's cut from here all the way down to here. I still have two rods in it, and pins that go in it. I literally can't lift more than, say, 25 pounds.
BRANCACCIO: Howell sent 70 pages of medical records to the Army. They told him to report for duty anyway.
RICK HOWELL: So if they expect me to pick up a weapon, it's not gonna happen. If they expect me to run anywhere, it's not gonna happen. If they expect me to stand more than 20 minutes, it's not gonna happen.
BRANCACCIO: Lt. Colonel Pamela Hart is an army spokesperson.
LTC PAMELA HART: People who serve in the IRR, are indeed soldiers. They may not be serving actively, but they are still soldiers who signed a commitment and have a mandatory service obligation.
BRANCACCIO: Colonel Hart says accusations that the Army is treating members of the IRR unfairly are false. There are more than 100,000 eligible individual ready reservists on the Army's list, yet less than 4000 of them have been called up for the Iraq war. And furthermore, she says, the Army has excused from service many of them because of family situations.
A person's gotten out of the Army could be years that they're raising a family, and they get this letter without warning that says, you've got six weeks to show up and do some of this again.
HART: We realize that it's a lot to ask for a soldier to come back on to active duty. And it's equally, if not more so, hard on families that we're asking these soldiers to come back.
BRANCACCIO: Rick Howell asked for an exemption-it was denied. The Army even told him he could be declared a deserter if he didn't show up.
The shortage of troops also has the military taking a hard line towards soldiers already on active duty. The Pentagon has issued what's know as a "stop/loss" order. Under stop/loss, soldiers are forced to remain in the military beyond their specified enlistment period. Over 40,000 soldiers and Marines have already seen their tours extended.
After four years on active duty with the Marines, Michael Hoffman was only two days away from leaving when he got nabbed for an extra six months.
MICHAEL HOFFMAN: My final physical was done and I had a completed checkout packet in my hand when my first sergeant called me into his office in the morning and just said, "I'm sorry Hoffman, but a stop/loss order has been signed. Nobody's going home. You're going to Iraq with the rest of the unit."
BRANCACCIO: Several of Hoffman's Marine buddies also got the stop/loss order. He says it weighed heavily on the whole unit.
HOFFMAN: Imagine one of your best friends is supposed to go home. Next thing you know, he's killed in a fire fight or by an I.E.D. or something like that. And all these guys around him, all his good friends are left thinking, "Wow, he was supposed to go home." It hurts everyone's morale.
BRANCACCIO: Hoffman's since left the Marines, and now works for an organization called Iraq Veterans Against the War. He hears from a lot of soldiers upset over stop/loss.
HOFFMAN: You get yourself all set to leave the military. You've got plans. You've got a family. And then suddenly they say, "I'm sorry, but everything's on hold. You're not leaving the military. You're going to Iraq for an indefinite amount of time." Which is what it's turning into with the extensions.
JIM KLIMASKI: It's involuntary servitude. He's become a slave of, military soldiers have just become slaves.
BRANCACCIO: Attorney Jim Klimaski represents a group of soldiers currently suing to overturn the Pentagon's stop/loss order. Fearing reprisal, all of those soldiers have chosen to remain anonymous-except this man.
Specialist David Qualls is a National Guardsman from Arkansas. He says he was hoodwinked by the Army. Qualls joined the National Guard under a program called "try one"-a program that was designed to give recruits a taste of guard life for just one year.
DAVID QUALLS: I tried my one. And you know, I completed and served that one year. Actually, I've served five months past my one-year obligation. And I feel that it's time to let me go back to my life.
BRANCACCIO: But thanks to stop/loss, Qualls was forced to stay in the military. In fact, just days after this press conference last December, Qualls was shipped out to Iraq.
He's since given up on the lawsuit, but the other unnamed soldiers are still suing, and the case is now working it's way through the courts.
JULES LOBEL, ATTORNEY: The Army has a duty to disclose to people that this could happen.
BRANCACCIO: Colonel Hart says there's nothing sneaky about the Army's stop/loss policy it shouldn't be a surprise to any recruit who's read his enlistment contract.
HART: When a soldier enlists in the Army, he signs a contract. And it's two, maybe a three page document that's very clear and concise, and doesn't have fine print as there has been led to believe in the public.
BRANCACCIO: We took a look at the Army's standard enlistment contract. Sure enough, the Army reserves the right to extend tours of duty without a soldier's consent in time of war or national emergency. Colonel Hart says there's an important reason.
BRANCACCIO: What would you say to a soldier who said, well, it's not fair? I thought I was about to get out?
HART: The policy is for unit cohesion. So that soldiers who train together don't have someone coming in who they don't know, who hasn't trained with them, don't know the standard operating procedures of how that unit works.
BRANCACCIO: And the Pentagon has floated yet another plan to keep troops in Iraq.
In testimony before Congress just last week, General Richard Cody, the Army's number two man, said it may do away with an age old policy: it may keep soldiers in combat zones for more than 24 months without a break.
GEN. RICHARD CODY, ARMY VICE CHIEF OF STAFF: Right now, we have 650,000 soldiers on active duty executing missions worldwide, and many of them have hit their 24 months cumulative time, so we'll have to address this.
BRANCACCIO: So just how severe is the Army's troop shortage? And how did it get so bad? We asked one person who should know.
Tom White was the Secretary of the Army when the Iraq war started in march of 2003. Before the war began, White, along with several high ranking generals, warned that it might take hundreds of thousands of soldiers to secure Iraq. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld brushed that estimate aside.
DONALD RUMSFELD: My personal view is that it will prove to be high.
BRANCACCIO: Soon after, White resigned from the Pentagon at Rumsfeld's request.
BRANCACCIO: In the preparations for Iraq, broadly, what did we get right and what did we get wrong?
THOMAS WHITE, FMR. ARMY SECRETARY: Well, I think we got the military campaign, the initial combat phase of it, right. Everything after, I think, could qualify as being wrong. We didn't have near the size force necessary to secure the country and we basically have not corrected that problem to this day.
BRANCACCIO: So personnel levels, boots on the ground, that's key to understanding what went wrong?
WHITE: I think so. Mind you what the task was. The task was a country of 25 million people that had a history between the Shiites, the Sunnis, and the Kurds of not getting along terribly well, spread out over a geographical expanse bigger than the State of California. Any reasonable person looking at that would say it's going to take a very large force to properly secure this.
BRANCACCIO: So what do you make of the current system where people are having their service extended. Is that system fair?
WHITE: Well, whether it's fair or not is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. The question is, can you sustain a force with that level of operational tempo. Remember, these people are volunteers, and sooner or later, they will come home. And sooner or later, they will have the option to vote with their feet about whether they think the system is fair.
BRANCACCIO: Are these personnel policies almost becoming desperate?
WHITE: Well, I think it reflects the critical nature of the times. We're at war. The war is lasting a lot longer than anybody thought it would when we started. It's requiring a lot more force than anybody thought that it would. So I think the manpower equation of the Army you could probably consider to be in crisis.
BRANCACCIO: One measure of that crisis: The army itself has admitted soldiers coming home from Iraq have walked away from the military. Over the last four months, the National Guard has been running 24% below enlistment goals the Army Reserve, down almost 20%.
LARRY KORB, FMR. ASST. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: We may have already gotten ourselves into a situation in which there's no good answer.
BRANCACCIO: Lawrence Korb says we're facing an even bigger challenge. Korb's been thinking about military manpower for two decades since his days as Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Reagan.
He says that not only does the Army need to overcome its enlistment problems, the size of the Army even needs to be bigger. It currently numbers about half a million soldiers. He believes it should add more. How many more?
LAWRENCE KORB: What you need right now, give the situation we're in, when I crunch the numbers, I came up with the number of 86,000.
BRANCACCIO: Korb believes that could be accomplished without a draft, through more aggressive recruiting. And there's growing support for a bigger Army on Capitol Hill, but not at the White House. While the administration's new budget calls for a huge increase in defense spending, none of that money is for a permanent increase in the size of the army.
KORB: For every 10,000 people you add on active duty, it's about a billion dollars. So let's say we add 100,000. Okay, that's 10 billion dollars a year. You're spending more than that on a national missile defense, which doesn't work and probably is not needed. You're buying the F-22 when you've already got the best fighters in the world.
In this new challenge we face against these radical jihadists, you're gonna need a lot of ground forces. And they should get the priority.
BRANCACCIO: All of this plays into a bigger debate over what kind of military America wants, and how aggressively we want to serve as the world's policeman. One well-known Republican senator recently said, "it's always the uniformed military that has to bear the brunt of bad decisions. They do the dying and the suffering." [Senator Chuck Hagel Dec. 20, 2004].
The Bush administration has said it will not revive the draft. But to former Black Hawk pilot Rick Howell, it sure feels like that's what's going on.
RICK HOWELL: I have not been to a single day of military training in eight years and they want me to go back and be on active duty when I get, like, a two hour block of training on improvised explosive devices. And then, boom! I'm off to Iraq.
BRANCACCIO: The Army has told Rick Howell, the man we just heard from, that he has to report for duty March 27.