CONTINGENCY OPERATING SITE MAREZ, Iraq - On paper, the concept behind the establishment of the Stop Loss program was to sustain cohesive operational forces that train and serve together through their deployments, as well as keep Soldiers with certain skills needed within those units.

In principle, however, it's not that simple.

For Sgt. Drake Harris and Sgt. Jacob A. Wilson, two members of the Forward Support Company, 1st Battalion, 64th Armor, 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, Stop Loss represented a shift in priorities - from preparing for life in the civilian community, to preparing for an Iraq deployment.

It was during the brigade-wide training at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., in July, that a definitive date had been set - anyone with a separation date of August 2009 onward were considered Stop Loss.

First used in the 1990-91 Gulf War, authority for Stop Loss has existed since 1984 (Section 12305, Title 10, U.S. Code). It enables the President of the United States to involuntarily extend or retain active duty enlisted servicemembers beyond their established separation date if they are deemed to be essential to the national security of the United States.

Initially, Sgt. Harris, 23, of St. Louis, Mo., was supposed to separate from the U.S. Army in Sept. 26, 2009. The Prescribed Load Listing, Maintenance Control noncommissioned officer in charge planned to start school at the University of St. Louis in September, but fell under the provisions of Stop Loss.

"I enlisted for three years, 26 weeks," said Sgt. Harris. "I had one year in the states, one deployment and one cycle stateside, all within that window, so I was due. Being in the Army, you might as well go ahead and expect it."

"Initially, I was kind of disappointed. I was set up to get out of the Army at a certain point. But it wasn't so bad. I got paid an additional $500 a month, and I came here with the rest of my company, so I'm not too (broken) up about it."

Even though his separation date wasn't until April 27, 2010, Sgt. Wilson, of Galivant's Ferry, S.C., found himself in the same situation. A maintenance squad leader with the Forward Support Company, the easy-going, 26-year-old also had to put future plans on hold.

According to Sgt. Wilson, his wife was not happy.

"(She) did not like it at all," he said. "She was very upset. But, she knew there was nothing we could do about it. She's been really supportive of me and has been there when I needed her.

"I felt like I knew it was going to happen. I wasn't really upset about it. I just got into the groove of things and figured I'd get done with it and go on with my plans."

Both Soldiers deployed previously to Iraq with 1/64 Armor, when the Fort Stewart-based unit set up shop at Camp Liberty in 2007-08. For Sgt. Wilson, this is his third trip to Iraq, as he deployed to Mosul in 2005-06 with the 94th Engineers, out of Grafenwoehr, Germany.

The Soldiers have used this extra "opportunity" to remain focused on their future after the Army. In reality, said Sgt. Harris, deploying with 1/64 Armor actually put him in a much stronger position to get out of the Army.

"I've been able to save a lot of money and pay off a lot of bills. I've researched other schools, even the ROTC program at St. Louis. I've looked into the new GI Bill and everything it offers. If I had gotten out in September, I wouldn't have been able to research everything as thoroughly as I have.

"I just let reality set in. I told myself, 'I'm getting out, I now have the extra time to plan.'"
"You don't want to be that one guy in Iraq for 12 months without anything to show for it," Sgt. Harris added. "Get a head start on your education. Get started in the Army with your free tuition assistance now and continue on with the GI Bill. They offer it to you as part of your service, so take advantage of it."

Sergeant Wilson joined the Army, July 14, 2003. He is a 2002 graduate of Colfax High School in California. He said he was tired of working part-time jobs, and he wanted money for school and a better opportunity.

"You hear stories from others, 'don't go, don't go,'" he said. "The military is what you make of it and how you take it. I came in really flexible and open-minded. I didn't know what to expect, so I took it day-by-day."

"It does get you ready for the real world, though. It makes you grow up fast," said Sgt. Wilson. "They throw a lot of responsibility at you. I learned a lot of everyday things, and not just in my military occupational specialty, like being disciplined, being a supervisor and leading Soldiers.
"I have no regrets about this deployment, and I haven't been disappointed with it. I served my country during a time of war - actually a few times, and I don't feel bad about Stop Loss, or for being sent home early. I don't have any bad feelings about it at all."

"I'm in a lot better position, overall," agreed Sgt. Harris. "The Army's given (me) a lot of skills you can't get as a civilian, such as stress management. You gain a lot of experience through the military and it all makes you a better overall person."

Sergeant Harris joined the Army, April 5, 2006, after graduating from Elsberry High School, 2005, in Missouri, for college money and to serve his country.

"Oh yeah, it's definitely exciting. It wasn't like the movies, though - you go to basic training, [Advanced Individual Training] and then go to Iraq. It's not a bad deal. I'd definitely recommend it to others. I'll take a lot away from the Army. It's all stuff that will benefit you later when you get out," he said.

Sergeant Harris is scheduled to redeploy to Kuwait and then Fort Stewart in early-August, while Sgt. Wilson left Iraq in late June. This is part of a directive, sending more than 200 Soldiers of the Spartan Brigade home between July and August, in order to meet the presidential mandate of no more than 50,000 Soldiers in Iraq by Sept. 1. Stop Loss Soldiers will make up the bulk of these early deployers.

And what's the first thing they want to do once they return to the civilian world'

According to Sgt. Harris, it's "all the normal things regular people do."

Sergeant Wilson plans to grow a beard, get a job, get friends and hang with his wife.