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Originally published April 15, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 15, 2005 at 12:02 AM

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Guardsman who challenged "stop-loss" policy leaving for Afghanistan

Sgt. Emiliano Santiago is expected to ship out to Afghanistan today after losing his challenge to the Pentagon's stop-loss policy that went...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Sgt. Emiliano Santiago is expected to ship out to Afghanistan today after losing his challenge to the Pentagon's stop-loss policy that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Santiago, a Pasco electrical technician who serves in the Oregon National Guard, completed an eight-year military commitment in June 2004. A few months later, his helicopter-refueling unit was placed on active duty.

As part of the Pentagon's "stop-loss" policy, Santiago was ordered to join his unit in Afghanistan. He sued the government and lost in federal district court last December.

On April 6, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals took just hours to reject his case that stop-loss was unconstitutional and violated his military contract. The judges also refused to order an injunction preventing Santiago's deployment.

Santiago's pro bono legal team appealed the injunction to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who determines which cases from the 9th Circuit will be heard by the high court. She turned down Santiago's request for review.

Federal laws allow commanders to implement stop-loss to ensure units do not lose key personnel to retirement in times of national emergency.

In November 2002, the Army involuntarily extended the enlistment of all National Guard soldiers whose units were alerted or ordered to active duty.

The 27-year-old employee at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratories in Richland is set to deploy from Fort Sill in Oklahoma today, said his lawyer, Steve Goldberg of Portland.

It is unclear when Santiago will return to the U.S., although most deployments last 12 months. The Pentagon renewed his military obligations until 2031, an arbitrary date set for "administrative convenience," according to court papers.

A spokesperson at Fort Sill said Santiago did not wish to speak to reporters.

Santiago's case attracted national attention, and Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, advocated for him on the House floor, citing the impact stop-loss might have on future military recruitment.

"I rise to alert the American people to the case of Emiliano Santiago. His case — his plight — should be known, and feared, by every high-school junior and senior across the country," McDermott said during a speech Wednesday. "The ugly little secret in the Pentagon is that Emiliano Santiago's voluntary service is now involuntary."

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Although it has tracked several unsuccessful challenges to stop-loss across the country, the Enlisted Association of the National Guard has not taken a position on the policy.

Representing 85,000 guardsmen, the Alexandria-based nonprofit association advocates for greater health care and job benefits for soldiers.

For the most part, its members have not grumbled about stop-loss, said Michael Cline, executive director of the Enlisted Association of the National Guard.

"There's nothing we can do about it," Cline said. "We've had lawmakers ask us about it, but there hasn't been a groundswell about stop-loss. It's not been a major issue for us."

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or afryer@seattletimes.com

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