Soldiers on leave to get free ticket home
By Pauline Jelinek
WASHINGTON In an effort to bolster military morale, the Pentagon soon will begin paying travel expenses for troops on leave from Iraq and Afghanistan to get all the way home.
The cost of that extra leg for tens of thousands of soldiers: $55 million.
Until now, the largest R&R program since the Vietnam War has flown soldiers to three cities in the United States and two in Germany, leaving them to pay for connecting flights if they want to go farther.
Some airlines offered discount fares to help, and a congressman started a program in which Americans donated millions of their frequent-flier miles for service members to use to get home.
But officials said yesterday they were working up a plan for the Defense Department to begin reimbursing troops for the connecting flights with the $55 million authorized recently by Congress for the coming year.
"If it comes to pass as envisioned by members of Congress, this would be the most generous gesture on behalf of the American people," said Maj. Pete Mitchell of U.S. Central Command. Full payment of travel expenses for home leave is unprecedented, he said.
To give troops some relief, the Pentagon in late September started giving two-week leaves in the largest rest and recuperation program since the Vietnam War.
More than 27,000 troops have taken the leaves, Mitchell said.
The arrangement differs from the program in place during Vietnam, when soldiers were given leaves to Hong Kong, Singapore or other Asian cities.
The Army said yesterday it had set no firm date for the start of the reimbursement program, which requires changes in federal travel regulations. Officials were working on details such as how much would be paid to each soldier and whether it would reimburse those who already had taken leave, they said.
"The devil is in the details," Mitchell said.
But the intent is to pay the full cost of commercial airfare that troops need to get home from three drop-off points in the states Baltimore, Dallas and Atlanta and two in Germany.
Officials estimated that troops had been paying an average of $300 to $500 out of pocket to get the rest of the way home.
Several soldiers and their families complained publicly about having to pay for the trips. Pentagon and congressional officials said they wanted to begin the reimbursement program amid worries about morale among troops working hard in the global war on terrorism and in the Iraq campaign, which is in its ninth month.
Work on the reimbursement plan was first reported yesterday by the Army Times publication.
The military has ordered yearlong deployments in Iraq because it is stretched thin around the world and didn't get help from as many international troops as hoped.
Morale has been a concern since troops and families began complaining in the summer about extended tours of duty and repeated deployments.
There are more than 130,000 U.S. forces in Iraq and neighboring countries, and more than 10,000 deployed for the Afghan effort, where violence continues two years after the fall of the Taliban.