The Pentagon is increasingly refusing to allow American soldiers to leave the armed services - even if their original contracts to serve are expiring - as commanders struggle to keep up the military's numbers in the face of increasing demands from multiple overseas missions, most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This year, as many as 40,000 Army men and women, many of whom voluntarily enlisted with the National Guard and the Reserve, have been denied the right to turn in their uniforms and return to private life.
A few are starting publicly to complain that they are trapped in military servitude.
By issuing a series of so-called "stop-loss" edicts over recent months, military leaders have managed to keep numbers in the United States Army at close to 500,000. This is about 20,000 more than a legal ceiling on the overall size of the Army that was set by the US Congress.
The Army says the decrees are vital both to keep the force up to strength and to ensure stability and sufficient combat experience in fighting units. Critics argue, however, that the stop-loss decrees amount to conscription in disguise and are unfair on those who have already given years to their country.
"I'm furious. I'm aggravated. I feel violated. I feel used," Chief Warrant Officer Ron Eagle, 42, a targeting officer from West Virginia, told the Washington Post. He was due for retirement last February, after 20 years of service, to concentrate on running his aircraft maintenance business. He was told to stay put, however. In January, he will be sent to Iraq for a tour of duty that is likely to last 18 months.
Similarly frustrated is Staff Sergeant Peter Costas, who joined the Army Reserve in 1991. After extending his service twice, Costas, 42, who is an interrogator, finally decided to retire from the reserve in May this year and commit to his civilian career with the Border Patrol. He also was told he could not.
"An enlistment contract has two parties, yet only the Government is allowed to violate the contract; I am not," said Costas, now in Iraq. He has been told he will be allowed to leave the Reserve next June. "Unfair. I would not say it's a draft per se, but it's clearly a breach of contract."
The "stop-loss" provisions are not a new thing in America. They were first introduced in World War II when serving soldiers were told they could not leave until the fighting was over, plus 90 more days. They were also used in the Vietnam War to prevent slippage in force numbers, and again in the first Gulf War.
With the US now engaged on so many fronts around the world, it may simply be that the 480,000 ceiling on the size of the Army is too low.
"It reflects the fact that the military is too small, which nobody wants to admit," commented Charles Mokos, a leading military sociologist at Northwestern University.
The Army's commanders offer little sympathy to those who feel unfairly trapped.
"We're all soldiers. We go where we're told," said Major Steve Stover, an Army spokesman.
"Fair has nothing to do with it."
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd