WASHINGTON—When Army Reserve Capt. Bradley E. Schwan sought to resign his commission last year, he thought that getting out of the Army would just be a matter of filing his paperwork.
The 30-year-old West Point graduate had served six years on active duty and two years in the reserves. His eight-year service obligation was over. He was ready to move on to a law career.
But the Army had other ideas. In July 2005, two months after he was eligible to leave the service, Army Reserve headquarters informed Schwan that his resignation request had been denied because the Army was short on officers.
"I'd heard rumors and inklings that they were looking at resignations and deciding whether they'd let people go," said Schwan. "But I thought, well, that can't be right. This is an unqualified resignation. And sure enough, it was denied. I filed a second resignation, but it was denied, too."
Stretched thin by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army is under pressure to keep qualified officers in its ranks.
As the war in Iraq grows more unpopular, and with no end in sight in the war against al-Qaida, Schwan's case and others like it raise questions about the future of the all-volunteer Army and how well it can be sustained.
"You know, if they're going to ask people to serve involuntarily, then this isn't something they should ask only a very small segment of society to do," Schwan said. "We're either an all-volunteer force or a conscription force. You can't really have it both ways."
Schwan argues that by refusing to let him leave the service, the Army is resorting to what amounts to a "back-door" draft.
The term is often used by troops who are ordered to stay in the military beyond their original discharge dates. Those orders, known as "stop-loss," are usually imposed because of combat deployment or personnel shortage, and they can remain in effect for as long as 18 months.
Schwan served an extra year on active duty under stop-loss orders. He says he didn't have any complaints since he "still belonged to the government." But now he believes that he's done his duty.
Federal law requires service members to serve eight years in their initial term. This is usually done by a combination of time on active duty and in the reserves.
Schwan, who lives in Simi Valley, Calif., filed a lawsuit to force the Army to let him go. It alleges breach of contract and fraud. The suit is pending in a Los Angeles federal court.
David Bockel, the deputy executive director of the Reserve Officers Association, said that history offers no clear guide to how cases such as Schwan's may be resolved.
"This is the first mobilization (of the reserves) since World War II, and this is an all-volunteer force," Bockel said. "We're in new territory right now."
The Army says it's refused to let Schwan leave because of the war.
"The Army Reserve is facing a critical shortage of officers and the retention of every soldier is important to our mission to safeguard the United States," said Col. Wanda L. Good, an Army personnel officer, in a letter last July.
Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly, then the chief of the Army Reserve, informed commanders in policy memos in 2004 and 2005 that resignations would be decided case-by-case.
The Army Reserve's authorized manpower strength is 205,000, but its actual strength is around 185,000, according to Pentagon statistics.
Reserve officers can resign if their career fields are at least at 80 percent strength, or if they served in Iraq, Afghanistan or in a domestic security mission since the 2001 terror attacks, or if they had personal hardships, Helmly wrote.
Schwan served in Bosnia, but not in Iraq, Afghanistan or homeland defense. What's more, he's a military intelligence officer, a field that the Army says is below 80 percent strength.
Officers who've completed eight years of service and aren't in an Army Reserve unit can resign as long as they haven't received mobilization orders, said Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, an Army spokesman for personnel issues.
But officers who haven't completed eight years and those with reserve commitments "can't just resign," Hilferty said. "We're not McDonald's."
Most officers who ask to resign are approved. Army Reserve officials say that 256 of 432 requests were approved in 2004. In 2005, 505 requests were approved and 190 were rejected. So far this year, the Army Reserve has approved 119 requests and rejected 34.
Military law experts say that other officers have sued because their resignations were denied since the war in Iraq started. Army officials were unable to provide firm numbers.
The government is fighting Schwan's case, citing a clause in the 1952 Armed Forces Reserve Act that says officer commissions "are for an indefinite term and are held during the pleasure of the president."
For the Army and government lawyers, the clause means that commissioned officers can be required to serve until hostilities are over or until the president or military commanders decide that they're no longer needed.
"Contrary to the government's premise, this does not give the president authority to extend the (military service obligation) of a Reserve officer, but only allows discretion for the early removal of such officers," said attorney Donald G. Rehkopf in court papers filed in support of Schwan's case.
It's also "inconceivable" that the phrase could be construed under the Constitution to mean "a potential lifetime obligation in the apparent never-ending `war' on criminal terrorism," said Rehkopf, a retired Air Force Reserve judge advocate.
Schwan said he "loves the Army and everything it stands for," but feels that he's done his part. "It's not like I'm getting out because I hate the government or I'm against whatever conflicts we're involved in," he said.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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