It’s official: Troops in Iraq can start taking vacation.

The new “Rest and Recuperation” policy, which kicked off this week, gives a majority of the estimated 130,000 troops deployed to Iraq a chance to get away from the combat zone, even if only for a few weeks.

Troops on 12-month orders will be able to use 15 days of their annual leave for vacation, excluding travel time to airports in either Frankfurt, Germany, or Baltimore, Md. They will fly from airfields either in Mosul or Baghdad to Kuwait, and then hop a flight to Rhein Main Air Base in Germany.

From there, troops desiring to return to the United States will be flown on a military flight to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, on the government’s dime. From there, they’re on their own, said Maj. Pete Mitchell, a spokesman with U.S. Central Command.

Troops deployed to Afghanistan have been able to take advantage of a similar program for the past seven months, Mitchell said. Troops deployed for more than 180 days in Afghanistan are eligible to take annual leave during that deployment, flying home out of Bagram Air Base. There’s no guarantee it will be 15 days, and the vacation time is up to unit commanders.

In Iraq, each brigade will get, at first, 15 slots per day, increasing to 20 slots. Priority will be given to troops with illnesses, family issues or emergencies, or pregnant female members. Some units are letting lower enlisted troops go first, then senior noncommissioned officers. Some are letting those who arrived first go home first.

The U.S. Air Mobility Command has added aircraft to fly in and out of the theater specifically for the program, Mitchell said.

The program is still in its infancy, and officials are taking it slow, Mitchell said. At first, as many as 270 troops will leave a day, with the number growing to about 800 a day in a month or two.

Some troops in Iraq already are starting.

The first V Corps soldiers — three of 1,150 people assigned to V Corps Headquarters — left Wednesday morning, said Lt. Col. Hank Dodge, a V Corps Headquarters, Headquarters Co. battalion commander at Victory City, Saddam Hussein’s former palace complex on the edge of Baghdad International Airport.

Dodge and several officers said they expect some senior leaders will not take advantage of the leave.

“I personally don’t plan on taking leave,” Dodge said. “When the time comes, I’ll probably take a knee. I’d rather see one of my soldiers go.”

But for one officer, leave can’t come too soon.

Capt. Matt Ashburn, 28, is about to be a father. His wife, Katarina, back in Heidelberg, is due to have the couple’s first child — a girl — in six days “and hopefully, plans work out that it’s perfect timing,” Ashburn said.

He’s scheduled with the next group to get leave, said Ashburn, who’s been deployed seven and a half months with G-3 (Air) at Fifth Corps headquarters at Victory City.

Only a few hundred yards away, two soldiers were split on whether to stay or go.

“I’m not going,” said Sgt. 1st Class P. “Hendu” Hendrickson, who has been in Iraq six months with the 1014th Quartermasters, reservists from Athens, Ga.

“When I leave Iraq, I want to leave Iraq,” Hendrickson said, who is scheduled to PCS home to Atlanta next April. Going home for 15 days would mean having to say goodbye to his wife, Tricia, “and I don’t want to take my wife through it again.”

“I’m going home!” said Spc. Aaron Appleby, also with the 1014th Quartermasters. A couple weeks home in Atlanta, “sleeping in a real bed, using a real bathroom” would get him mentally ready to do his final four months, Appleby said. He added it will be difficult to get on that plane back to Iraq. “I’ll be boo-hooing!” Appleby said, laughing. “I miss the States!”

Other soldiers weren’t laughing. One soldier with the Darmstadt, Germany-based 27th Signal Brigade, attached to V Corps, said if she leaves, “I’m not coming back!” Moreover, she added, she doesn’t expect to get leave until December, and by then, she’ll be looking at leaving by February or March. “I just want to get it over with.”

The issue of soldiers going AWOL, or Absent Without Leave, has not been a problem for troops in Afghanistan, and officials don’t anticipate it being one for those deployed to Iraq either, said Air Force Maj. Mike Escudie, a CENTCOM spokesman.

U.S. Army Europe expects some troops to arrive in Frankfurt by the weekend.

Each flight can carry up to 270 troops, with about one-third being soldiers from Europe-based units.

For weeks, family members in Europe have heard rumors of an R&R program.

Elizabeth Cornelius, whose husband Robert is a platoon leader with the Friedberg-based 1st Battalion, 37th Armored Regiment, heard the news Wednesday over the radio, she said from Ray Barracks’ fitness center. Many wives are counting on a chance to see their husbands, Cornelius said, but she’s not so optimistic.

“I’ll believe it when we see it,” Cornelius said. “If it pans out, I’ll be the happiest woman on Earth, but if it doesn’t work out, I won’t be surprised.”

“Two weeks might not be long enough; it’s almost like a tease,” said Jennifer Sanborn, whose husband, Martin, is a forward observer with the Giessen-based 2nd Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment.

But she’s still hopeful for the chance to spend some time with her husband.

“I miss him and my boys miss him very much,” Sanborn said. “It would be nice to have him home.”

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