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Some Troops Don't Return From R&R

More than a dozen American troops haven't returned to duty after getting a vacation from Iraq, the Pentagon (search) said Tuesday, dismissing suggestions there is any significant AWOL (search) problem.

Sixteen of some 3,000 troops failed to show up at airports in Baltimore and Germany for return flights to the Persian Gulf (search) region, said Army spokesman Joe Burlas. None has been declared "absent without leave" as officials try to sort out the cases.

To give troops some relief from the long and difficult deployments in Iraq and neighboring countries, the Pentagon late last month started giving two-week leaves in the largest R&R program since the Vietnam War. Some flew to Germany and others to Baltimore free of charge, and they were responsible for flights the rest of the way to their destination.

In the first five days of return flights starting Oct. 12, 28 people didn't show up, Burlas said. After tracking them down, it was learned that 20 had permission or some reason. The other eight were unaccounted for, as were eight who also missed flights in the last five days.

Some of the problem was a result of the newness of the program Burlas said, adding that numbers kept changing Tuesday and it was impossible to gauge the size of the problem.

Officials found some had received an extension on their leave from their unit commander at home rather than their commander in Iraq, or had informed commanders they'd be delayed but failed to phone proper officials at the airports, and so on, Burlas said.

"The vast majority ... have already been tracked back to guys who missed planes, missed connections — one man's house burned down," said Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "So there are reasons why they didn't return."

A statement from the U.S. Central Command called the number minuscule.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said it won't affect the leave program.

Officials said they didn't immediately have statistics on the number of troops normally AWOL. Such cases typically increase in times of conflict. Experts inside and outside the services predicted before the program started that some troops would simply not return to the hot, often dirty and dangerous work of occupying Iraq.

Coalition forces are there trying to stabilize violence that is killing roughly an American daily, while at the same time trying to restart the economy and build a new government. Soldiers are being allowed to come home — rather than receiving leaves to Hong Kong, Singapore and other Asian cities, as was done during the Vietnam War — making it harder for them to return to duty, experts say.