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Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey canceled the two-week Rest and Recuperation program for the next two months for the roughly 47,000 soldiers under his command in Baghdad.

“We did make a command decision, that would be me, that we couldn’t do any more environmental leave, R&R, after 31 January,” said Dempsey, commander of the Wiesbaden, Germany-based 1st Armored Division. “We did that principally because we have a mission to accomplish in transitioning the city of Baghdad over to the unit following us.”

Dempsey said Monday during a press briefing from Baghdad that the 1st AD would be leaving “over the next 90 days.”

Several active, Guard and Reserve units fall under Dempsey’s command, working in and around Baghdad.

Troops there had complained of getting mixed messages.

Army leaders in the States tasked with running and speaking for the R&R program said they were not aware of the 1st AD’s decision to cancel leave for such a large population of U.S. forces in country, and had made emphatic statements recently that the program had not been canceled.

“The program, in general, has not been canceled,” Gary Jones, a spokesman for Army Forces Central Command in Atlanta, said Monday. However, he said, he hadn’t been aware of the general’s decision, which affects a large number of troops.

Several soldiers and families have e-mailed Stars and Stripes seeking clarification between what they’re being told and what they’ve read.

A story in the Jan. 23 editions of Stripes reported, “[t]he Army is not canceling the Rest and Recuperation program for troops in February and March — misinformation that seems to have made its way around the country, from commanding officers telling their troops to public affairs telling the media.”

“Your article is wrong and irresponsible,” one soldier wrote in response. “The R&R program has been canceled for our unit. Your article makes it hard for our families to believe us, as it is canceled for us.”

Some 1st AD soldiers and those under the division said they weren’t surprised at the decision to stop R&R leave since the unit will be preparing to return home in the next few months. They expected all soldiers currently on R&R would be back in Iraq to help the unit move out.

“Most everybody got to go home except people who just got here a few months ago,” said Pfc. Carlos Guzman, of Company B, 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Division. Guzman said soldiers who have been in Iraq less than six months did not expect to qualify for R&R leave, anyway.

Pvt. Ben Bates, also from the 1st AD, said he had been on duty in Iraq for five months. “I’m not worried about it at all because I didn’t think I deserved it. There are other guys who have been here a lot longer than me who got to go.”

To qualify, troops must be deployed on 12-month orders and can take leave between the second and 11th month in country, though most aren’t granted leave until the six-month mark, Jones said.

“The decision whether to continue or suspend the R&R leave program during this crucial transition period … will reside with the local commanders, with the mission on the ground taking priority,” Central Command spokesman Maj. Pete Mitchell said. “The silver lining for those forces in [Operation Iraqi Freedom] 1 who might miss the opportunity to take R&R leave is the fact that many of them have already begun transitioning back to the United States” or to their home station.

In spite of the 1st AD’s decision, R&R continues for other troops in country, Jones said. “There are others for who it is still carrying on, and yes, it’s up to individual unit commanders to decide if the soldiers can go based on mission requirements.”

Though Central Command chartered planes specifically for R&R, units are facing difficulties getting troops in and out of country, Dempsey said. “We also were beginning to bang into some transportation problems, challenges.”

For example, while the leave was capped at 15 days, the clock didn’t start ticking until the soldier reached the United States and it could take upwards of 10 days to get them out of theater, Dempsey said. “It was taking about 25 days from start to finish.”

— Staff writer Marni McEntee contributed to this report from Baghdad.

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