Tue, Dec 07, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Soldiers sue Army for breach of contract

ANGRY BAND Their tour of duty has expired and they want to come home, but the US military won't let them -- so eight soldiers are taking the US Army to court

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

David Qualls, at home in Morrilton, Arkansas last week, on leave from Iraq. A member of the Arkansas National Guard, Qualls is one of eight soldiers planning to file a lawsuit to prevent the Army from requiring them to stay on duty.

PHOTO: THE NEW YORK TIMES

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 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, 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.

"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.

"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.

Some 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.

These 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.

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.

Aside 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.

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