WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is giving thousands of American troops currently serving in Iraq some much-deserved vacation by reviving its R&R program (search) for the first time since the Vietnam War.
The first planeload was en route to the Rheinmain Air Base (search) in Germany, one of two destinations for those getting leave, said Maj. Pete Mitchell, spokesman for the U.S. Central Command (search) on Thursday. Others are flying to Baltimore.
"First of all, rest and recuperation ... is essential just because what they're being asked to do is pretty darn difficult," Mitchell said. "But it's more than that; we also believe rest and recuperation will improve readiness."
He said officials hope that after a mental and physical break from Iraq, forces will "be that much more alert, that much ... more on top of the game."
The vacation flights are being paid for by the government, and troops continuing on from there to their homes or other places will cover the expense of their continuing flights.
The program applies to all troops who have been given one-year tours of duty in Iraq and in supporting roles in neighboring countries. It allows up to 15 days leave, half of their annual vacation.
"This is the first time an R&R leave program has been provided in a combat theater for all forces on 12-month orders since Vietnam," Mitchell said.
Officials are still working out details of the program and so it will start out slowly. It also will depend on developments on the ground, where daily attacks on coalition forces have slowed stabilization efforts.
Eventually, the military hopes to also provide flights to Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and Los Angeles.
There are 130,000 Americans inside Iraq and tens of thousands more in Kuwait, Qatar and other countries in the Persian Gulf region.
The subject of deployment lengths has been a sensitive one in the Iraq campaign.
The leave will give service members the opportunity to focus on family and friends and is considered a "quality of life investment," according to a Central Command press release.
Yearlong rotations were ordered during the summer as the Bush administration found little success in getting more nations to contribute forces.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.