Stuck in the service 

A local look at stop-loss

click to enlarge Army Spc. John Walter manages a pre-departure smile - despite having to leave wife Lisa and son Jackson. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Army Spc. John Walter manages a pre-departure smile despite having to leave wife Lisa and son Jackson.

Nancy Walter bends over the blue mesh playpen.

"He's just like his dad, when his dad was little," she says. "Just loved to kick."

She pauses for a moment, and the smile fades from her face. Her grandson, Jackson, squirms out from under his blanket.

Here, in Army Spc. John Walter's cozy living room, the last half of November is ticking steadily by. John, 25, and his wife, Lisa, 21, have packed the house with chairs, presents, stockings nailed to the wall, and a Christmas tree that is already blazing its warm rainbow.

John's family drove in from Indiana last night. His mom Nancy, dad David, 21-year-old brother Eric and 11-year-old brother Andy have come to celebrate Thanksgiving and an early Christmas, and to be with John before he leaves for Iraq. It will be John's third deployment to the war-torn country.

John is not volunteering for this mission with Fort Carson's 3rd Brigade; the military extended his service without his consent, using a policy called "stop-loss." He was scheduled to be discharged from the Army in October 2008, but now he'll be in Iraq through March 2009. And the Army could keep him enlisted even longer.

Often referred to by critics as "the backdoor draft," stop-loss is used by the military to retain personnel past retirement or enlistment discharge dates, especially during wartime.

The drama surrounding the unpopular policy has inspired a Hollywood movie, Stop Loss, which stars Ryan Phillippe and will hit theaters in March.

Since the beginning of the Iraq war, tens of thousands of servicemen have been stop-lossed (that's an estimate, because the Department of Defense would not provide an exact figure), including about a third of John's approximately 25-person platoon.

"When they make a decision, it's about my day-to-day life and my family," John says. "It's different. It's kind of stressful. They don't get it, I think."

Like many soldiers, he was told by recruiters that there was little to no chance he would be stop-lossed.

"They were like, "This hasn't happened since World War II,'" he says.

Now, John and his family are preparing for a 15-month deployment, and, of course, there's always the chance he won't come back.

"He always says, "Oh, don't worry about it, I'll be fine,'" she says. "Now that we have a 9-month-old, I have to prepare myself in case he doesn't come back."

She frowns. For Lisa, this is something of a first. She knew John the last time he was in Iraq, but their relationship didn't get serious until he came back. John's parents and brothers, meanwhile, have grown accustomed to the situation, though they're not fond of it.

"Probably when we get ready to go back to Indiana, I'll lose it," Nancy says. "He's going to miss Jackson walking. His first words. And that's something he'll never get back."

Positive thinking

As the soldier's parents, David and Nancy Walter prefer to imagine the war as less dangerous than it actually is. That's possible, because no one else in John's immediate family has ever gone to war. David says that when he was a young man, his serviceman brother talked him out of joining the military.

"His exact words were, "I will break both of your legs if you even mention it,'" David says, laughing.

Still, David wasn't upset when his eldest child joined the National Guard in 2000. There wasn't a war at the time, and John was planning to train to be a helicopter powertrain technician. It seemed like a good opportunity.

David and Nancy raised their three boys in Rensselaer, Ind., a town of 5,500 people. It was great for kids, they say. John and Eric would swim at the public pool, fish in the river or catch critters in the swamps.

But there aren't too many career prospects in the area. David works as an electrical rebuilder, the guy everyone calls when the electric mower gives out. Nancy works part-time at Wal-Mart and in the local school system as a cook. The people of Rensselaer work in agriculture, or, if they're lucky, at the Orville Redenbacher or White Castle bun factories. So, the military often doesn't seem like a bad deal.

But John Walter never did get into technician training, due to some paperwork problems. And after 9/11, he began to feel useless. John's career was in limbo, and he didn't have the active-duty experience other soldiers took pride in.

So he became a cook, transferred to the Army and shipped out to Iraq in 2003. At that point, the war effort was just beginning. Soldiers were rooting out Saddam Hussein loyalists. Big bases weren't set up, and soldiers didn't have access to TV or current newspapers. John says he didn't know about the "big picture" of the war at the time.

David and Nancy heard from their son only when he could find a phone, which then was rare. John would tell them about the woes of reheating pizzas, or about detaining a cow.

"When I became concerned," David says, "was when I saw the news on TV and there was a truck, and it was all shot up, and it was a water truck just like his."

click to enlarge With the Walter family gathered around before Johns - return to Iraq, young Jackson enjoys playing with  what - else?  Army toys. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • With the Walter family gathered around before Johns return to Iraq, young Jackson enjoys playing with what else? Army toys.

So he and Nancy stopped watching the news.

Brothers reunite

When John came back, he invited his brother Eric to come and live with him in Colorado Springs. For a while, the young men had fun. They were single, and John's house was near the downtown bars.

But in 2004, John re-enlisted.

During his second tour in Iraq, troops had access to TV and the Internet. John began to hear about the misinformation that led to the war, and about opposition. He wondered if the war had really been necessary.

The situation was becoming more dangerous, and more of his fellow soldiers were dying. Still, when John called his parents, he told them about three goats riding in a taxicab.

Meanwhile, he met Lisa on MySpace.

"It started off with him saying, "How's the weather in New York?'" Lisa says.

The two became pen pals, and in February 2006, when John flew back to Colorado Springs, Lisa was waiting for him at the airport. She never returned to New York. The two were married in a civil ceremony but put off planning a wedding because they didn't know when John might leave.

Then Lisa got pregnant. When she was carrying Jackson, she believed John would not be redeployed. But John already suspected they'd keep him for another tour and past his scheduled release date.

"I'm going back to Baghdad, which is a city I'm not that fond of, and I personally think smells bad," John says. His family gives a hearty laugh.

But then John says that the Green Zone isn't bad. It is, in fact, green. Nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Of course, he'll miss drinking real beer, and listening to NPR with Lisa on Sunday mornings. They also love taking their son to the zoo, and hiking and climbing in the mountains.

On this end

Lisa will stay in this house with Jackson and the couple's two dogs. She has no family in Colorado Springs, and says she might get a part-time job to ease the financial stress and the empty hours of worry.

"When you go to bed at night, you know where he is," she says. "You just never know what's going on."

After looking forward to a normal life, Lisa can't help but resent her husband's departure. It's not necessarily that the family believes withdrawing from Iraq is the solution John believes a total withdrawal would be disastrous.

But John thinks he's given enough to the war. Now he just wants to be home, and maybe begin working toward a college education. Most of his high school buddies already have their bachelor's degrees and have started careers, he says.

"Actually, one of them is my art teacher," his brother Andy pipes in.

John looks at his shoes and slowly shakes his head, back and forth.

"It's hard to believe," he tells Andy, gently.

Sensing the awkward moment, John assumes a comical, forced cheerfulness. The military hasn't been all bad, he says. He got to see the world. Iraq, Kuwait, Dubai ... actually, he stayed in his room in Dubai and enjoyed the air conditioning. He went to Naples, Italy, he says. It looked like Newark.

John holds his grin through the last of the belly laughs. No one seems to notice the look of disgust and defeat that briefly plays across his face.

Needless to say, he won't be re-enlisting.

Don't even think about it, David tells his son. Or else.

"We're going to have to break your legs," the older man chuckles.

"I think a few people would break his legs," Nancy chimes in.

John left for Iraq on Dec. 2.


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