WASHINGTON – The Army took initial steps Monday to expel dozens of reservists who failed to report for active duty, in effect warning hundreds of others that they too could be penalized if they don't heed orders to return to active service.
The proceedings mark a turning point in the Army's struggle to deploy thousands of soldiers from the Individual Ready Reserve, a rarely mobilized group of reservists, to war zones in which some have resisted serving.
These are soldiers who had previously served on active duty but not completed their eight-year service obligation. Unlike those in the National Guard or Army Reserve, they are not required to stay in training. Many have requested a delay in returning to service, have asked to be exempted or have ignored their orders.
The Army began mobilizing them in the summer of 2004, reflecting the enormous strain it felt in providing enough soldiers for Iraq at a time when it was becoming apparent that no early withdrawal was likely.
So far, mobilization orders have been issued for more than 5,700 IRR soldiers since mid-2004.
The Army announced that about 80 soldiers will face review panels, known as separation boards, although the number may grow. If the panels conclude they intentionally did not obey a mobilization order, they would face one of three levels of discharge from the service: honorable, general or other-than-honorable.
They do not face criminal charges.
As of Dec. 11, the latest date for which the Army had figures, 3,954 IRR soldiers had reported for duty. In addition, more than 1,600 had been excused from duty and 463 had been sent orders but not yet reported. Of those 463, the Army has been unable to locate 383. The other 80 are the ones who now face discharge.
When the Army initially found that it was facing resistance from some IRR soldiers who did not want to get back in uniform, there was talk of declaring them AWOL and pursuing criminal charges against them. But that was deemed too harsh and the Army spent many months trying to contact those who were ignoring their orders.
In its announcement Monday, the Army said that in addition to those who have openly refused to report for duty, those who do not respond to repeated communications from the Army may face discharge proceedings.
All of the 80 who now face discharge proceedings are enlisted soldiers, according to Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, an Army spokesman. It was not immediately clear, he said, how long it had been since the Army took discharge action against IRR soldiers who refused to be mobilized, but it probably has been more than 15 years.
Of the three possible types of discharge that an IRR soldier may face in these proceedings, the most severe is "other than honorable." While a soldier given an honorable or general discharge would continue to be eligible for payment for accrued leave, and for health benefits and burial in an Army national cemetery, those given an "other than honorable" discharge would not be.
Two even more severe types of discharge — bad conduct and dishonorable — will not be considered in the IRR cases, the Army said.
Last November the Army started a new policy that ended the practice of involuntary callups of officers in the IRR. The policy change affects 15,000 officers who completed their eight-year military service obligation but chose to stay in the IRR. These officers can now avoid being forced to serve on active duty, but only if they resign their commission. Previously, an officer could not resign once ordered to active duty.
The last time members of the IRR were called to active duty was 1990, when nearly 20,000 were mobilized for the Gulf War against Iraq.
In recent years, most in the IRR had come to assume they would never be called up. But the strains of simultaneous conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have forced the Army to mobilize IRR to fill certain vacancies.