MORRILTON, ARKANSAS -- The eight soldiers come from places scattered across the country, from this small town an hour northwest of Little Rock to cities in Arizona, New Jersey and New York. In Iraq and Kuwait, where they all work now, most of them hold different jobs in different units, miles apart. Most have never met.
But the eight share a bond of anger: Each says he has been prevented from coming home for good by an Army policy that has barred thousands of soldiers from leaving Iraq this year even though the terms of enlistment they signed up for have run out.
And each of these eight soldiers has separately taken the extraordinary step of seeking legal help, through late-night Internet searches and e-mail inquiries from their camps in the conflict zone, or through rounds of phone calls by an equally frustrated wife or mother back home.
With legal support from the Center for Constitutional Rights, a liberal-leaning public-interest group, lawyers for the eight men say they will file a lawsuit today in federal court in Washington challenging the Army policy known as "stop-loss."
Last spring, the Army instituted the policy for all troops headed to Iraq and Afghanistan, calling it a way to promote continuity within deployed units and to avoid bringing new soldiers in to fill gaps left in units by those who would otherwise have gone home when their enlistments ran out. If a soldier's unit is still in Iraq or Afghanistan, that soldier cannot leave even when his or her enlistment time runs out.
Since then, several National Guardsmen who received orders to report for duty in California and Oregon have taken the policy to court, but the newest lawsuit is the first such challenge by a group of soldiers. And these soldiers are already overseas -- transporting supplies, working radio communications and handling military contracts, somewhere in the desert.
"You should know I'm not against the war," said David Qualls, one of the plaintiffs and a former full-time soldier who signed up in July 2003 for a one-year stint in the Arkansas National Guard but now expects to be in Iraq until next year.
"This just isn't about that. This is a matter of fairness. My job was to go over and perform my duties under the contract I signed. But my year is up and it's been up. Now I believe that they should honor their end of the contract."
Qualls, 35, who says he sometimes speaks his mind even to his superiors, is the only one among the eight whose real name will appear on the lawsuit against the Army's military leaders. The rest, who fear retribution from the Army -- including more dangerous assignments in Iraq -- are described only as John Does 1 through 7.
Experts not involved in the case say the government generally has been granted broad legal authority when it comes to the obligations of soldiers in matters of national security and times of conflict.
"The courts have traditionally ceded to the military," said Gary Solis, who teaches law at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "Even if the gents win at the trial level, the government is not going to quit. They cannot afford to. There is a potential cascade effect here."
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