Colonel: 8 to 10 percent of Iraq troops won’t get leave
The loss of thousands of Rest and Recuperation slots for troops in the Middle East during May and June has been met mostly with stoic resignation, say some deployed soldiers and family readiness group leaders in Germany.
“The crowd kind of took it all in stride,” said Ruth Hubner, FRG leader for the 1st Battalion, 77th Armor Regiment in Schweinfurt, Germany, after attending a community briefing last week at which the cutbacks were announced. “I don’t know if we’re all in denial. It really hasn’t affected us yet.”
Several of the largest units affected, including the 1st Infantry Division and 1st Cavalry Division, arrived in Iraq only three months ago. Their hands are full with the spring uprising by groups of both Shiite and Sunni rebels. The bloody insurgency has forced the Pentagon to keep more than 15,000 troops in Iraq and Kuwait beyond the usual one-year deployment.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Stuart Byrd of the 57th Medical Company (Air Ambulance) said his unit left Fort Bragg, N.C., more than a year ago and has been ordered to stay two to four months extra. Only about 40 percent of its members received R&R.
“No leave has been offered during our extension that I am aware of,” he wrote by e-mail from Kuwait. “If people want to complain that their leave gets put off, tell them to walk a mile — or over a year — in our shoes.”
On April 25, Coalition Joint Task Force 7 — the name of the unit overseeing allied military operations in Iraq until it was realigned last week as Multi-national Force-Iraq/Multi-national-Corps-Iraq — quietly notified units it would be dramatically cutting back R&R slots between May 1 and June 15.
Col. Bob Ortiz, the coalition’s personnel commander, said the chartering of two 250-seat jumbo jets per day to ferry soldiers on leave from Kuwait to Germany and the United States was postponed until mid-June because of “operational requirements and the extension of 15 to 20 thousand troops in Iraq,” according to a statement released earlier this week.
Instead of 500 seats aboard charter aircraft, Ortiz said the task force planned to buy about 60 tickets per day aboard commercial aircraft departing from Kuwait City International Airport — a reduction of more than 85 percent for the time period. He estimated the cuts could cost 8 percent to 10 percent of troops in Iraq their midtour leave.
The biggest impact is on soldiers who had hoped to fly home for a son’s or daughter’s graduation.
Veda Church said her husband, Maj. Jeffrey Church, had planned to be home to see their 18-year-old son, Steven, in two important ceremonies: his graduation from Würzburg American High School, and his Eagle Scout Court of Honor.
Church is with Task Force 1-26, a 1st ID battalion serving at Forward Operating Base Brassfield-Mora in Samarra, Iraq. Because of his leadership role, his wife said, he’ll yield his R&R spot to a more junior soldier.
“It’s kind of upsetting that he’s not going to be here,” Veda Church said. “But he told me, ‘I’d rather make sure my guys get home before I do.’ ”
At least, she said, Würzburg — along with other Department of Defense Dependents Schools — plans to broadcast their graduation ceremonies live over the Internet. If they can’t be home, at least some soldiers will be able to watch.
If anything will mute resentment over canceled or delayed R&R, Hubner said, it is the parade of flag-draped caskets coming home to Germany this terrible spring. Twenty-nine Europe-based 1st ID soldiers have been killed since the division left for Iraq in February. Thirteen have come from Schweinfurt.
“After all that Schweinfurt has been through in the last few months, we’re a kinder community,” Hubner said. “It haunts us. It could be a lot worse.”