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ARLINGTON, Va. — The Army is now reimbursing troops for commercial plane tickets home for troops returning for two-weeks vacation from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Troops tapped for the two-week vacation away from the war zones under the Rest and Recuperation program will have to pay their own way up front, and then file the necessary reimbursement paperwork.

“Payment will be through the normal channels. They’ll submit a travel voucher through their chain of command and [the Defense Finance and Accounting System] will pay it,” said Gary Jones, a spokesman for Army Forces Central Command in Atlanta. “Just save the receipts.”

Reimbursements for fares already paid by troops are retroactive only to Dec. 19, and do not extend to the beginning of program, which started in September.

Pentagon lawyers told Army officials the Department does not have the legal authority to make retroactive reimbursements before the implementation of the program, said Col. Paris Mack, chief of the R&R task force.

The program officially was blessed Dec. 19 by Charles Abell, principal deputy, under secretary of defense for Personnel & Readiness.

The total cost of the R&R leave program through mid-December has totaled $63.9 million, which includes the cost of getting troops out of Iraq and on chartered airplanes to Germany or the United States, according to program documents obtained by Stars and Stripes.

The new “Onward Travel” portion of the program, in which the Army picks up the commercial airline tab, will cost the Army an estimated $56 million — roughly $1 million shy of what Congress recommended be allotted and what the Army has set aside to pay for the commercial flights, Mack said.

The Army is working hard to find means to narrow that gap, said Mack, adding no details are yet available.

Since the program’s start in Iraq in September, roughly 40,000 troops have taken R&R leave, said Army Lt. Col. Gregory Julian, a spokesman for Army Forces Central Command in Atlanta.

Of those, about 16 have been classified as absent without leave, failing to return to the theater following the allotted 15-day leave.

“There are numerous reasons as to why some might not have returned,” said Julian, such as hospitalizations, compassionate reassignments and extended emergency leave. Some, in fact, had returned to Iraq. “With thousands of soldiers going in and out, occasionally some will slip through the cracks, but only temporarily,” Julian said.

He did not know if disciplinary action has been or would be taken against any of the troops.

During the upcoming rotation of new troops flocking to Iraq, the number of R&R leave participants is expected to decrease from 479 a day to between 240 and 270 a day, Mack said.

The Army, appointed the executive agency over the R&R program, will fly the troops from Kuwait to Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany, and then on to Baltimore-Washington International Airport in Maryland, which will temporarily be the sole stateside airport taking R&R travelers. The change to fly only to BWI, effective Jan. 1, is because of the gradual movement of fresh troops into the region — who take priority — and fewer troops eligible right now for R&R.

“We’re not downsizing. With the surge in progress, you’ve got troops getting out of there and the new ones going in can’t take their leave yet, so there’s not enough demand” to fly troops to the designated Atlanta or Dallas airports, Jones said. “We’ll resume [flights there] later this year … we’re anticipating early June.”

Servicemembers can book commercial travel tickets at Camp Champion, Kuwait, through the Army Community & Family Support Center, which also provides on-site help and information on reduced rate hotels, rental cars and even admission tickets to major attractions in the States.

On Sept. 25, Central Command started the R&R leave program for all servicemembers, active or Reserve, and DOD civilian employees, deployed on 12-month orders within the Area of Responsibility in support of the Global War on Terrorism — providing them with 15 days of chargeable leave between their third and 11th month in theater. Typically, however, troops begin taking that leave at the six-month mark.

Troops deployed to Afghanistan on 12-month orders leave Afghanistan and fly to Rhein-Main, where they link up with an R&R flight for BWI, Central Command spokesman Maj. Pete Mitchell said.

Information is available on the Internet at: http://www.odcsper.army.mil/Directorates/wb/RRLeave/index.htm

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