ARLINGTON, Va. — Troops on 15-month deployments can take 18 days of leave during their midtour break, instead of 15, according to a change to the rest and recuperation policy.

The change to the U.S. Central Command Rest and Recuperation Leave Program was signed July 13 by David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, although it was not announced until Tuesday evening.

CENTCOM leaders asked for the additional three days of leave after Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced he was adding three months to the one-year “boots on the ground” rotation policy for active-duty Army units in January, Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith told Stars and Stripes on Wednesday.

The Rest and Recuperation Leave Program, which began in 2003, is for any servicemember who is deployed for more than 12 months in support of either Operation Iraqi Freedom or Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

The Army, however, is the only service that routinely deploys members for that length of time, although the other services will occasionally deploy individuals in joint-service positions for such tours.

The additional days of rest and recuperation, like the other 15, are “chargeable” leave, which means that servicemembers who take it are using up leave time they earn as part of their annual benefits.

But travel in and around the Central Command theater can be slow and unpredictable, with servicemembers due for rest and recuperation sometimes stuck for days waiting to catch aircraft to various staging points.

After the Rest and Recuperation Leave Program was established, servicemembers complained that they were losing much — in some cases, almost all — of their rest and recuperation leave to in-theater travel hassles.

So Pentagon officials decided to change the policy to consider travel days as uncharged days.

Instead, the clock starts ticking when a servicemember “hits Dallas or Atlanta as an entry point,” or whichever commercial airport is nearest their leave destination, Smith said.

The clock stops again when a member departs that commercial airport to return.

The amended policy is not retroactive, which means that only servicemembers who take leave beginning on or after July 13 can take the full 18 days.

Pentagon officials debated whether to make the policy retroactive, but decided it would be too disruptive to operations to manage, spokesmen said.

“To make the policy retroactive would cause severe turbulence in field units and undermine their mission-oriented posture,” another Pentagon spokesman, Army Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington, said in a Wednesday e-mail.

The amended policy applies only to members on 15-month tours.

Servicemembers on one-year tours will continue to receive 15 days of chargeable rest and recuperation leave, the policy says.

Soldiers don’t have to go home for rest and recuperation — they can travel anywhere they want — but most do.

Many soldiers save their rest and recuperation leave to attend special events, like graduations or the births of children.

Units are allocated a certain number of rest and recuperation “slots” per month, and most commanders try to be flexible with their scheduling, allowing troops to trade leave slots with one another as home circumstances change.

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