WASHINGTON – A congressional report released Wednesday said $55 million will not be enough to get military personnel all the way home from Iraq for two weeks of leave, without the soldiers having to dip into their own pockets.
The Defense Department currently flies soldiers on "rest and recuperation" leave to one of three U.S. airports — Baltimore, Atlanta and Dallas — and it is up to the soldiers to get from there home.
The Iraq supplemental spending bill (search) that passed in November included $344 million to get soldiers back to this country, and Congress recommended that the Pentagon spend $55 million of that amount on getting troops all the way home.
But a Congressional Research Service study requested by Maryland state Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (search), D-Md., predicted that the $55 million would run out in "a matter of a few months," according to a memo summarizing the study.
The research service, an arm of the Library of Congress, said that one Defense official noted that paying to get every soldier "all the way home would increase the total cost of this program to approximately $1 billion," according to the memo.
A spokeswoman for the Army, which is overseeing the R&R program for the other branches of the service, said it is too soon to say when or how the $55 million might be distributed.
"We need to figure out how it's going to work and basically how we can best put this money to use," said Jennifer Gunn, the spokeswoman.
But Ruppersberger said the Congressional Research Service memo is proof that programs like "Operation Hero Miles" (search) — which lets people donate frequent flier miles to soldiers on leave — are still needed.
"The $55 million is a good first step, but it is not enough," Ruppersberger said in a prepared statement.
Since Ruppersberger started Operation Hero Miles in October, seven major airlines have signed up for the program and 150 million miles have been donated. Ruppersberger spokeswoman Heather Molino said soldiers stand in line in Kuwait to get tickets that are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis under the program.
"We still really need people to donate miles — especially this holiday season — because tickets are going to be very expensive," Molino said.
She noted that the program makes tickets available to soldiers heading home on emergency leave. Those soldiers would not qualify for any of the $55 million targeted by Congress.
But those soldiers need help, too, said Ray Shipley, the Maryland Veterans of Foreign Wars (search) commander who greets troops arriving at Baltimore/Washington International Airport to begin their leave.
"We had a guy last Saturday that came home on emergency leave, and he didn't have any money" to get home to Los Angeles, Shipley said.
Still, Shipley said, both Ruppersberger's program and the $55 million are an improvement over what he and his comrades faced in previous wars.
Back then, the military would not even get a soldier back to U.S. soil.
"They never gave us anything. When you went on leave, that was your responsibility," said Shipley, who spent his Korean War R&R in Japan.
"If you didn't have enough money to go home, you didn't go. That's the way it used to be."