ARLINGTON, Va. — Come Sunday, 479 U.S. troops a day will be leaving Iraq and surrounding countries in the military’s “rest and recuperation” program, a boost from the 270 troops a day who have traveled home for vacations since the program started in late September.

Under the largest R&R program since the Vietnam War, troops deployed to Iraq and the theater of operation on 12-month orders get to take two weeks’ leave, getting that chance typically when they reach the six-month point, said Gary Jones, a spokesman for Army Forces Central Command in Atlanta. There are about 135,000 U.S. troops serving in Iraq, and roughly 200,000 in the entire theater.

Also Sunday, troops leaving Kuwait on the military-chartered civilian planes can fly to two new airports that signed up in the program. The flights will go to Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport in Georgia, and for those needing to go farther west, they can fly to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in Texas.

Until the change, troops had been flying either to Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany or Baltimore-Washington International Airport in Maryland, before catching commercial flights on their own dime to make it home.

That, too, is changing.

On Saturday, troops can begin collecting free commercial airline tickets to wherever they need to go through a program sponsored by U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., called “Operation Hero Miles,” in which travelers donate frequent-flier miles so troops returning on R&R don’t have to pay their own fares.

As of Thursday, more than 4 million miles had been donated through the program’s Web site,, said Heather Moeder Molino, the congressman’s spokeswoman. Donors gave millions more directly through the three participating airlines, which are Delta Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines. Delta, with a hub in Atlanta, donated 10 million miles when it joined the program, Moeder Molino said.

Troops can collect those free donated airline tickets, and make commercial travel arrangements, at Camp Champion in Kuwait, the Aerial Point of Debarkation, or APOD, where troops assemble to leave on R&R. If unable to get connecting flights from there, the Army has staffed each of the airports with additional personnel to help troops in making those arrangements, Jones said.

Hartsfield officials, along with the USO there, are gearing up for the first troop arrivals Sunday.

“Being the busiest airport in the world, we’re used to handing a large number of passengers,” said airport spokeswoman Lanii Thomas. “But seeing the family members and the loved ones of those servicemen and women returning is going to be different and heartwarming.”

The USO will provide free food, an area to sleep for troops waiting for connecting flights, single-use shower kits, and free $5 phone cards they can call home to say they’re on American soil and heading home, said Mary Lou Austin, director of USO in Georgia.

In Dallas, the airport mobilized its customer service and ambassadors’ force to help troops and families, including staff to help families make travel arraignments to greet incoming troops, said spokesman Ken Capps.

The R&R leave excludes travel time to get out of the theater. Commanders are violating the regulation if they are charging troops that time against the 15 days, Jones said. The 15 days begins at midnight the day after they check into the processing area of one of the four airports. “They are to be getting the full 15 days,” Jones said.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now