WASHINGTON - In an action branded a backdoor draft by some critics, the military over the past several years has held tens of thousand of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines on the job and in war zones beyond their retirement dates or enlistment length.
It is a widely disliked practice that the Pentagon, under new Defense Secretary Robert Gates, is trying to figure out how to cut back on.
Gates has ordered that the practice - known as "stop loss" - must "be minimized." At the same time, he is looking for ways to decrease the hardship for troops and their families, recruit more people for a larger military and reassess how the active duty and reserves are used.
"It's long overdue," said Jules Lobel, vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and lawyer for some in the military who have challenged the policy in court.
"It has created terrible problems of morale," Lobel said last week. "It has in some cases made soldiers feel that they were duped or deceived in how they were recruited."
Gates has asked the chief of each service branch for a plan by the end of February on how they would rely less on stop loss.
The authority has been used off and on for years and was revived by all services to some extent after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
As an example, the Army revived it in early 2002 to keep people with some skills or specialties deemed critical to the fight against terrorism and later used it to retain whole units, according to an Army chronology of the policy.
Pentagon officials provided no figures on how many people the policy has affected. Yet just in the Army, it is in the tens of thousands.
The Army Times newspaper reported in September that 10,000 soldiers were being held in the service at the time. That compared with 25,000 at one point in 2003, according to the account.
The Navy stopped a few hundred sailors from leaving in the year after the terrorist attacks and used the policy again after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The Marine Corps used it from January through August of 2003 and at the high point had some 3,400 active duty troops and 440 reservists held in service under the authority, said 1st Lt. Blanca E. Binstock, a spokeswoman.
The Air Force did not have statistics immediately available.
The Defense Department says the main reason for the policy is to keep units whole for deployments, regardless of whether service time is up for some individuals in the unit.
"It's based on unit cohesion," former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld once said when a soldier questioned him about the policy during Rumsfeld's visit to the staging area in Kuwait that is used for troops going into Iraq.
"The principle is that - in the event there is something that requires a unit to be involved in, and people are in a personal situation where their time was ending - they put a stop-loss on it so cohesion is maintained," Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld said the policy was "something you prefer not to have to use in a perfect world." He said it was basically a sound principle and well understood among soldiers.
A half-dozen lawsuits have unsuccessfully challenged the policy. Courts have agreed that the Pentagon involuntarily can extend deployments if the president believes the practice is essential to national security.
Though families dislike the policy and some troops oppose it, others accept it as a fact of life in wartime.
Others, including lawmakers who have pushed for years for a larger military, have criticized the policy as a method for increasing the size of the force through back channels at the detriment of those who volunteered.
Reversing previous administration thinking, President Bush said last month that the military should be larger.
One of Gates' first major decisions upon replacing Rumsfeld in December was to recommend that the Army's troop strength be increased by 65,000 soldiers, to a total of 547,000 worldwide and that the Marines grow by 27,000 to 202,000.
Gates' effort to stop keeping troops in the service after their commitment expires is part of a wider effort - laid out in a Jan. 19 memo - that also ordered new incentives for those who deploy early or often or are extended.
The more widely noticed parts of that memo said Gates wants to limit involuntary mobilization for reserve forces to a year at any one time and make it a goal to limit active forces to a year deployed and two years at home base in between deployments. Most only get a year at home base now.