The number of soldiers forced to serve beyond their commitment has been cut in half in the past year and is on track to be eliminated by March, Pentagon records and interviews show.

Stop-loss affected more than 15,000 troops at its peak in 2005 and has been cut to about 4,000. Experts on military morale say the steady decline in forcing troops to serve has dampened the controversy, though they say the Pentagon delayed action.

The use of stop loss during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has “dragged on for years,” said James Martin, a professor of social work at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and a retired Army colonel and Pentagon official. “In terms of policy, clearly somebody had to think out of the box.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared in March 2009 that the practice had to end, saying it was “breaking faith” with those who volunteered to serve. He had ordered the services to reduce stop loss in 2007. However, the numbers of troops affected climbed more than 40 percent in the months that followed, largely because of the additional troops sent to Iraq.

More than 140,000 troops — all but about 20,000 of them Army soldiers — had assignments extended under the policy since 2001. It was referred to as a “back-door draft” by Rep. John Murtha, the combat veteran and Pennsylvania Democrat who died early this year. Troops affected are eligible for additional payments of $500 for each month they were compelled to serve.

Source: Tom Vanden Brook for USA Today.

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