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HEIDELBERG, Germany — Soldiers returning from duty in the Middle East have been promised 30 days of block leave vacation almost as soon as they get home. But for spouses employed within the local military communities, getting their own month off may be tricky.

Top officials with most of the major employers of military spouses in Europe promise, however, that managers will do their best to give the husbands and wives of returning troops as much time off as possible.

In many places, that’s not going to be easy.

Just ask Terry Batenhorst, who manages 15 commissaries in the Wiesbaden area, home of the 1st Armored Division, which is now preparing to return from Iraq. Of his 400 employees, about one out of every four is married to a returning soldier.

“It’s going to take a lot of planning to manage this,” he said.

Complicating things is that soldiers’ schedules are still very fluid right now. Return dates are constantly changing, making it hard for spouses to even ask for specific leave times.

Then there are places like his Dexheim store, where eight of the 10 workers are married to soldiers in the 123rd Main Support Battalion.

“And there’s a good chance all those soldiers will come back at the same time,” said Batenhorst, which means all those spouses will want the same block of time off.

Batenhorst huddled with his store managers last week to work out a strategy.

“We’re going to try and bring in people from our larger stores to fill in for places like Dexheim as needed, but there’s still a lot we don’t know right now,” he said.

He’s going to do his best to give spouses as much time off as they request.

“That’s our intent, anyway,” said Batenhorst.

Still, commissary officials say they can’t promise that everyone will be able to take as much leave as they want, when they want it.

“We’ll do all we can to be accommodating,” said Cecil Saunders, deputy director for the commissaries in Europe in a statement. “We have to be flexible to the needs of those spouses who have given up so much while their troops have been gone, but we still have to run a business. Our challenge is to see that everyone wins.”

PX employees

That’s the dilemma post exchange officials are facing as well.

“We will try to provide opportunities for family members to go on R&R leave to the fullest extent possible,” said Maj. Dave Accetta, spokesman for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service in Europe. He added, however, that in some cases it may difficult or impossible to allow employees 30 days’ leave.

AAFES is the largest employer of military spouses in Europe, with about 45 percent of its 9,000-strong work force in Europe married to a servicemember. Like the commissaries, he said AAFES store managers will probably shift workers between stores to help cover extended absences.

Accetta also added that if employees don’t have 30 days of paid vacation accrued, they can elect to take leave without pay.

Teachers, day-care staff

Russ Hall, head of the Installation Management Agency in Europe, said he was bringing in 72 child development center staffers from the United States to help provide enough extra manpower so spouses can take leave with their returning soldiers.

But Diana Ohman, chief of Department of Defense Dependent Schools in Europe, says she just can’t afford to give that much time off to the some 350 teachers and other DODDS employees married to deployed soldiers.

“It’s a budgeting issue,” she told a gathering of spouses Tuesday in Heidelberg, Germany. “We just don’t have the money to buy enough substitute teachers.”

There are also regulatory issues and a desire to maintain continuity in the classroom. Teachers will only be able to use the three personal days that are already allotted for time-off scheduling, she said.

For other employees, DODDS Europe spokesman Frank O’Gara said, “Principals are cognizant and understanding of the special needs of our family-member hires. Some will request leave time when loved ones return from deployments.

“Principals will work these requests on a case-by-case basis and balance the needs of employees with the need to provide a continuing education program for all students.”

USAREUR civilians

Gen. B.B. Bell has directed his commanders and department heads to give civilian employees with returning spouses as much time off as possible. But, he says, mission comes first.

“A liberal leave policy is in affect for civilian employees whose spouses are returning for R&R and block leave,” wrote Bell in a Nov. 26, 2003, policy memo.

“Managers will approve requests for accrued annual leave or leave without pay during R&R and block leave periods unless this would adversely affect the mission. Where possible, managers will look for alternate ways to accomplish the mission to allow spouses time off,” Bell wrote.

Soldier spouses

Perhaps most problematic of all are the soldier-couples where both spouses are in uniform but usually assigned to different units.

Because the 30 days of block leave is built into a 45-day reintegration program that starts the day after an individual soldier arrives into Europe, leave for spouses that don’t arrive together will, at best, only overlap and, at worst, fall on completely different periods.

“Best thing for soldiers like that is to talk to their commanders,” said Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Jane Crichton.

“The bottom line is that all soldiers will be able to take leave within the first 45 days of returning,” she said “Each individual soldier is going to have their own concerns and needs and each command should handle that in their own way.”

Guide spells out details

Army officials have created a 110-page gold mine of information for returning troops and their families.

Called the “Soldiers, Civilians and Family Members’ Reintegration Guide,” the welcome-home bible will be handed to every soldier upon arrival in Europe. The glossy, full-color guide comes complete with checklists, scores of handy numbers, and helpful tips on everything from medical and finances to career and parenting issues.

There’s even a calendar to mark off that first 30 days of block leave.

— Jon R. Anderson

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