Justin Thompson, 23, proposed to Erin underneath the Eiffel Tower last February. The photos of the two on her MySpace page have the hallmarks of a young couple in love. Thompson can’t wait to get back to Lacey, Wash., to get married, and go to college. There’s one problem: Thompson is in Baghdad, serving his second deployment as a sergeant in the U.S. Army, and he is losing hope that he’ll ever be allowed to leave.
Sgt. Thompson, assigned to the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the Second Infantry Division, was first deployed to Iraq in November 2003. When his unit returned to the United States one year later, he immediately started hearing rumors of redeployment and stop-loss–the military’s age-old policy that compels soldiers to continue serving during wartime, even after their contract expires. Four months later, the rumors were confirmed and Thompson was stop-lossed. Despite exhibiting signs of combat-related depression–uncontrolled anger and heavy drinking, for which he was repeatedly disciplined–Thompson redeployed to Iraq on June 28, 2006, exactly one day after his contract with the Army expired.
This April, while stationed in Baghdad, Thompson received another surprise. This second, involuntary tour would be extended by three months, as part of the Pentagon’s new policy that the Army’s standard tour of duty would be extended from 12 to 15 months. The news was devastating.
“I felt that I’d given everything I had to give,” Thompson says. “I felt that I’d pushed myself to the brink of insanity and back and that still wasn’t enough. I fought in a war I didn’t agree with, but I’d taken an oath saying that I would serve, so I did. I felt used up.”
The Pentagon made this decision in spite of a growing body of medical research–all of which was available before the policy change–that shows longer tours are a primary cause of combat-related stress. Research also shows longer tours increase the psychological impact of traumatic experiences on soldiers, correlate to an increase in combat ethics violations, and put intense strains on military families. In short, increasing the length of deployment puts American soldiers, their families and Iraqis in danger.