Frustration over leave priority simmers for tired soldiers in line for R&R
ARLINGTON, Va. — It’s not just the “saga of the 368th.” Troops, commanders and families back home are expressing confusion over the new “rest and recuperation” policy aimed at giving deployed troops in Iraq and surrounding countries 15 days leave.
Last week, that confusion plagued the 368th Engineering Battalion out of New England, in which 58 reservists thought they all would be going home for a few days of vacation. Turns out, planning officials had only given the battalion permission for nine soldiers.
“Apparently, the battalion leadership of the 368th, upon learning of the R&R program, arbitrarily assigned a 10 percent figure of the number of soldiers within that battalion who would be authorized to go on leave once the program began,” explained Central Command spokesman Maj. Pete Mitchell. “The problem with that decision had to do with the fact that there were a number of limited seats on the government aircraft, a number of limited seats by design.”
The commander told those 58 troops to instead buy commercial airline tickets, fares out of Kuwait International Airport to Manchester, N.H., at prices ranging between $1,200 and $2,000 for a round trip — and later, the soldier would seek reimbursement from the Army. The next batch of anticipated troops was given the nod to buy commercial tickets too, for a total of troops.
Army leadership and Central Command objected and frantically worked to get reimbursements from the Kuwait airlines.
Other misconceptions were small, by comparison, Mitchell said. “The 368th is the only unit to date that appears to have made a mistake of that severity.”
But confusion is there.
“The number one problem we’re hearing is that units and soldiers are looking at the early numbers of the program, that is the 279 seats per day, and they are doing the math and running those numbers all the way out and are erroneously concluding that there won’t be enough seats available for their unit to be accommodated over a 12-month period,” Mitchell said.
At the current rate of 279 a day, the command is accommodating 8,370 troops over 30 days. Over a year, that would be 100,400 troops; a dip from the 130,000 troops currently deployed to the theater.
“However, we are going to ramp the number up to ensure that every servicemember who is in the Iraq theater under 12-month orders will get the opportunity,” Mitchell said.
The first R&R wave expires Saturday; those troops who got to go home are expected to report back to duty.
Spc. Julian Smith is with the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad, Iraq. Her husband, too, is deployed to Iraq. They’ve got children back in the United States. She said neither she nor her husband is considered a priority to go on leave. “We haven’t been explained the leave policy. We only know that it’s two weeks of leave and chargeable. It should be more specific on who’s going. It should be policy on who has priority or who doesn’t.”
Sgt. Manuelito Alberto, an Army reservist, is deployed with the 1st AD to Iraq and also served with the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan last year.
“If you just had a baby, you’re on the top of the list. Those deployed on active duty aren’t getting priority with the 1st AD. A lot of Reserves and National Guard deployed last year and are not on the top of the list,” he said.
One mother heard from her daughter in Iraq that the program is available only to married troops or those with children.
Fallacies, Mitchell said. It’s up to unit commanders who gets to go and who doesn’t, he said, and yes, typically those who just had babies, got married, had a death in the family, etc., might get picked first, but it’s the unit commander’s discretion and there are no hard-fast rules.
Spc. Nicole Thompson, 26, a reservist with the South Carolina 319th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment now in Baghdad pretty much keeps her fingers crossed.
“Whether married or single, we’re all making the same sacrifice across the board,” Thompson said. “I put in my request to go, and I’m just waiting, hoping to make the cut.” If all goes well, she expects to hear if she’s one of the lucky ones by sometime in December. “I just want to go home, even if for 15 days,” she said.
Staff writer Jason Chudy contributed to this report from Baghdad.