Military to Send Troops All the Way Home for R&R

In an effort to bolster military morale, the Pentagon soon will begin paying travel expenses for troops to get all the way home on leave from Iraq (search) and Afghanistan (search).

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 (search) has flown soldiers only to three cities in the United States and two in Germany, leaving them to pay airfare 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 flyer miles for service members to use to get home.

But officials said Tuesday 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.

Such 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.

So far more than 27,000 troops have taken the leaves, Mitchell said.

The arrangement differs from the program in place during Vietnam, when soldiers received leaves to Hong Kong, Singapore or other Asian cities.

The Army said Tuesday 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 be retroactive to cover those who have already 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 have been paying an average of $300 to $500 out of their own pockets 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 who are 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 Tuesday 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 as many international troops to help as had been hoped.

Morale has been a concern, since troops and families in the summer began complaining 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.