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. \nBut 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. \nWith 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 in federal court in Washington challenging the Army policy, known as stop-loss. \nLast 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. \nSince then, a handful of 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. \n"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 last year for a one-year stint in the Arkansas National Guard but now expects to be in Iraq until next year. \n"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," he said. \nSome military experts described the soldiers' challenge as both surprising and telling, given the tenor of military life, where soldiers are trained throughout their careers to follow their commanders' orders. \nThese soldiers' public objections are only the latest signs of rising tension within the ranks. In October, members of an Army Reserve unit refused a mission, saying it was too dangerous. And in recent months, some members of the Individual Ready Reserve, many of whom say they thought they had finished their military careers, have objected to being called back to war and requested exemptions. \nQualls, 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. \nAside from the shared expectation that they would have gone home by now, these soldiers' situations could not be more varied, as interviews with their families made clear. \nOne is a member of an Army band, ordered to travel Iraq this year performing music. Another is an Army reservist in a New Jersey transportation company with 18 years of service behind him. Another is an Arizona National Guardsman in his 20s, whose wife says he sounded subdued, even tearful, when she spoke to him in recent days on a phone line from Kuwait. \n"The whole morale in his unit is on the floor," she said on the condition that she not be named, to avoid revealing her husband's identity. \nAlthough Army officials said they could not comment on a lawsuit, particularly one they have not yet seen, they described the stop-loss policy, which was first instituted during the first Gulf War more than a decade ago, as a crucial lesson learned in Vietnam, where troops were rotated out just as they had become acclimatized to a treacherous environment. \n"If someone next to you is new, it can be dangerous," said Lieutenant Colonel Pamela Hart, an Army spokeswoman. \n"The bottom line of this is unit cohesion. This way, the units deploy together, train together, fight together and come home together," she said. \nSome soldiers like Qualls, though, say they wonder if the rule is not just another way to keep troop numbers high, particularly at a time when the military has been stretched thin and the number of troops in Iraq is expected to rise still more, to 150,000, in the coming weeks. \nIn recent months, at any given moment, the stop-loss policy has affected about 7,000 soldiers who had been planning to retire, leave the military or move to a different military job. The rule affects soldiers whose enlistments are scheduled to end within 90 days before their unit is deployed, those already deployed, and those whose term would end up to 90 days after their unit returns. On Friday, Army officials said they did not know the total number who had been affected so far. No date has been announced to end the policy. \nJules Lobel, a lawyer for one of the eight soldiers, described the central complaint this way: They were fraudulently induced to sign up, he said, because nothing in their enlistment contract mentioned that they might be involuntarily kept on. \nBut experts not involved in the case say the government has generally been granted broad legal authority when it comes to the obligations of soldiers in matters of national security and times of conflict. \n"The courts have traditionally ceded to the military," said Gary Solis, who teaches law at the US 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." \nPhillip Carter, a former Army captain and an expert in military and legal issues, said: "Rarely have we seen people win such cases. At best, this is symbolic protest." \nThe soldiers and their families, however, say they do not see it that way. Their hopes are far more practical. They want to go home.
PHOTO: THE NEW YORK TIMES
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