HEIDELBERG, Germany — With the first flight of U.S. troops from Iraq arriving in Germany on Friday, U.S. Army Europe has shifted its support role into high gear.

On Thursday, the Pentagon announced the approval of a 15-day rest and recuperation program for soldiers serving 12-month combat tours. At the same time, USAREUR launched a Web site to assist troops arriving in Europe, whether they are heading home or on vacation.

“We’re here to ensure that soldiers have the maximum opportunity to enjoy their time off,” said Bob Purtiman, a USAREUR spokesman.

“They deserve a couple weeks off to refresh themselves, before going back to finish the remainder of their tour. We’re here to support them and take care of them while they’re back here.”

The break from the action represents an approach the military hasn’t taken in years.

“This is the first time an R&R leave program has been provided in a combat theater for all forces on 12-month orders since Vietnam,” said Maj. Pete Mitchell, spokesman for the U.S. Central Command.

Troops were expected in Frankfurt early Friday morning, Purtiman said.

The Army has established a reception at Rhein-Main Air Base outside Frankfurt. While USAREUR hopes to keep processing times to a minimum, Purtiman said, troops will undergo a few mandatory briefings before they can meet with loved ones.

The program allows soldiers 15 days off, excluding travel time to airports in either Frankfurt or Baltimore. In the future, the program may include flights to Atlanta, Dallas and Los Angeles, said Mitchell.

“The program is still in its infancy,” Mitchell said. “The intent is to expand the places soldiers can fly to, to minimize their costs.”

Soldiers will be given adequate time to coordinate their vacation with their families, Mitchell said. Single soldiers will have access to quarters and their personal belongings, but in some case where buildings are being renovated, they may stay in different barracks, Purtiman said.

At first, USAREUR will have 24 hours’ notice on inbound troops. As the program matures, notification will be more refined and given earlier, Purtiman said.

Not only Europe-based troops will be getting off the plane in Germany. Some deployed troops from the States may choose to meet their families and stay in Europe for their time off.

Once soldiers are processed through Frankfurt, they are free to travel on their own, Purtiman said.

“Troops that choose to stay here on leave are going to be treated like any tourist,” Purtiman said, after consulting with the USAREUR personnel office. “They can go anywhere in the European Union with their ID card.”

Also, USAREUR is creating a printed handout for soldiers that will have tourist information, Purtiman said.

Anticipating the program’s launch, USAREUR established a Web site that tells troops everything, from the history of the Army R&R program to tips on dealing with the media while on leave. The site — — contains links to airport Web sites, hotels and tour guides.

On Wednesday, the American Forces Network will air a call-in show with Brig. Gen. Russell Frutiger, a USAREUR personnel officer who will talk about the R&R program.

A telephone hot line for families in Europe is being established, but in the meantime, questions can be sent via e-mail to:

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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