WASHINGTON, Feb. 23, 2009 - Ending the military's so-called "stop-loss" program is a priority for Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a senior official said here today.

The stop-loss program is the involuntary extension of active duty beyond a servicemember's expiration of term of service, or ETS.

The program is in place to make sure units deploy with all positions filled. Servicemembers with an ETS or retirement date that would occur while a unit is deployed can be "stop-lossed" - or extended - until the end of the deployment.

This is an issue that the services have had to deal with since the beginning of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said today. Currently, only the Army is using the provision, with about 13,200 Soldiers involuntarily extended.

"The goal here ... is to move as rapidly as possible to end stop-loss altogether," Whitman said. "It is the secretary's desire to take a comprehensive approach to ending this, which includes using the additional authorization Congress has given the department to be able to grant a special pay to those soldiers that are affected by stop-loss."

The congressional initiative funds a special pay of $500 per month to stop-lossed servicemembers. "The department appreciates the authority as well as the flexibility to compensate servicemembers that are affected by stop-loss," Whitman said. "But the goal here is to end stop-loss altogether as rapidly as possible."

Army officials will brief Gates on the program later this week, he said.