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Sgt. Benjamin Kaye has a picture of his daughter taped to the stock of his rifle. Kaye is dismayed that he was not allowed to return home for even a week after his daughter had surgery for spina bifida that rendered her paralyzed from the waist down. Military officials say being allowed to return to the States for emergency leave varies widely from unit to unit based on operational tempo and an individual's military job.
Sgt. Benjamin Kaye has a picture of his daughter taped to the stock of his rifle. Kaye is dismayed that he was not allowed to return home for even a week after his daughter had surgery for spina bifida that rendered her paralyzed from the waist down. Military officials say being allowed to return to the States for emergency leave varies widely from unit to unit based on operational tempo and an individual's military job. (Marni McEntee / S&S)

(One in a series of Stars and Stripes articles in "Ground Truth: Conditions, Contrasts and Morale." Click here for the series index.)

AL KUT, IRAQ — Glued to the stock of Army Sgt. Benjamin Kaye’s M-16 is a photograph of his 10-month-old daughter, Brittany.

She has blond hair, blue eyes ... and spina bifida, a condition in which her spinal cord is underdeveloped.

“I could have stayed home but I decided to do my duty and deploy,” said Kaye, a nuclear power plant engineer whose Army Reserve unit was activated in December.

Before the war began, Brittany’s condition worsened. Kaye’s wife took the baby from their Buffalo, N.Y., home and went to The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. There Brittany had spinal surgery that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Doctors do not know if she will ever walk.

A Red Cross letter arrived in February and Kaye completed the form to return home. But his battalion commander, Lt. Col. Christopher Holshek, denied the request. Despite more queries to return home, intervention by the Red Cross and an end to major combat, Kaye remained in Iraq.

“I would no longer recommend anyone join the Army,” said Kaye, who still has three years’ Reserve duty left. “My commander simply refused to care.”

Top officials for the U.S. military in Iraq would not address Kaye’s situation, but said emergency leave decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

Kaye’s plight is like many others deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Emergency leave, according to troops in the field, is inconsistently applied across the theater.

Troops say one soldier is allowed to fly home for the death of a grandparent, while a 20- year-old servicemember whose wife needs surgery for cervical cancer is denied a week off to be at her side.

While these troops struggled in the field, they say others with the extra $1,000 or more for a commercial ticket from Kuwait City to the United States flew home for their children’s high school and college graduations.

A spokeswoman for U.S. troops in Iraq said granting leave requests varies from soldier to soldier based on that soldier’s job or the current operations.

“Emergency leave is a commander’s program, meaning the unit commander is the level of authority that grants leave,” said Army Lt. Patricia Vencill, a spokeswoman for the U.S. military directorate in Iraq that handles personnel issues. “The program varies from branch to branch, and individual cases vary from unit to unit.”

Stars and Stripes tried to reach Kaye’s commander for comment several times, but was unsuccessful.

U.S. military regulations permit a person, even during combat, to use accumulated leave to attend the graduation of a child if it is approved by their commander and if they pay for their ticket or fly space-available travel.

But troops in the field are unable to see the process that goes into deciding who can go or who must stay, and that confusion can lead to anger and resentment.

“There is no parity. Why can [one person] go home to be with his family but I can’t?” asked Navy corpsman Brian J. Gresh, who could not return home even though his wife needed surgery for cervical cancer that would leave her unable to have children. “This crushes personal morale. It destroys unit morale.”

During several weeks of interviewing American troops across Iraq, dozens of soldiers and Marines told Stars and Stripes that it was not even clear what constituted emergency leave.

Whatever the policy, they said, it was applied unequally between units, commands took too long to grant leave requests, and soldiers were left demoralized.

Marine Sgt. Anthony Heckenger said his unit struggled as other Marines dealt with the deaths of grandparents, a sibling who needed surgery and a parent fighting lung cancer.

“As a Marine, when we are in the field we are at our best,” said Heckenger, of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment of the 1st Marine Division camped near Diwaniyah. “But these guys who are worrying about loved ones ... they aren’t the best war-fighting machines they should be. Maybe they should go home. I didn’t understand why they couldn’t go.”

The process to receive emergency leave begins when a servicemember gets a Red Cross letter saying a family member is ill, in critical condition or has died.

If a servicemember wants to return, he or she fills out a form that goes first to a supervisor and then to the battalion commander, who has the final say, according to military regulations.

The decision is discretionary based on mission needs, and the result is two soldiers in different units with identical personal situations could be treated differently.

Kaye wasn’t the only soldier from the 402nd Civil Affairs Battalion, an Army Reserve unit from Tonawanda, N.Y., who wanted emergency leave but was denied.

Military officials said the process is not perfect and that there are cases in which emergency leave, when looked at in hindsight, should have been granted but wasn’t.

Gresh, the Navy corpsman whose wife had cervical cancer, was still waiting in September to return home.

His wife had postponed surgery three times because she thought he would be granted leave to be by her side.

Gresh said he does not regret his decision to join the Navy or his wife’s decision to wait until he returned from Iraq to have the surgery.

But what gnaws at him is that the military, since June, promised repeatedly that it would get him home to be with his wife.

“I do not understand or question the beast [the military], but I do, however, have a grudge I will hold against it for a long time. Why do they make promises they can’t keep?”

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