WASHINGTON – The home leave program for troops serving in Iraq is being expanded to fly more people out of the region every day and bring them to more U.S. airports, the military said Friday.
Beginning Sunday, some 480 soldiers, up from 280, will leave daily from the Kuwait facility where troops are gathered for departures.
"The expansion of the R&R leave program is an opportunity to get even more of our heroes serving in the region a deserved break," said the U.S. Central Command (search).
And they will have a choice of flying to Atlanta and Dallas as well as the previous destinations of Baltimore and Germany, officials said.
"The addition of two airports (is) to get troops closer to their homes," the Command said in a statement.
To give troops some relief from the long and difficult deployments in Iraq and neighboring countries, the Pentagon in September started giving the leaves in the largest R&R program (search) since the Vietnam War. Troops expected to be deployed for a year are getting two-week vacations with paid flights out of the region and are responsible for fares for connecting flights the rest of the way.
Soldiers are being allowed to go home — rather than receiving leaves to Hong Kong, Singapore and other Asian cities — as was done during the Vietnam War (search).
Coalition forces are in Iraq and neighboring countries trying to stabilize violence that has been killing roughly an American daily and spiraled to new heights this week. They are struggling at the same time with trying to restart the economy and build a new government.
Morale has been a concern, since troops and families in the summer began complaining about extended deployments and repeated deployments prompted by the longer-than-expected violence in Iraq on top of increased duties owing to the global war on terror.
The military has ordered yearlong deployments in Iraq because it is stretched thin around the world and didn't get as many international troops as had been hoped to help in the Iraq campaign — a war some nations disagreed with in the first place.
Of some 10,000 troops who have received their rest and recuperation trips, some 2 percent, or about 200, have not returned at the appointed time and place, officials said. Some have mitigating reasons for not getting there on time, but the numbers are unclear and changing as people are tracked down.
Officials said a rate of 2 percent absent without leave is not unusual during a conflict or even sometimes for returnees after a holiday.