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ARLINGTON, Va. — Troops traveling from the war zone on a little R&R will not have to foot the bill for plane tickets home.

A new law diverts $55 million from the Army’s Operation and Maintenance fund into a personnel fund so that the service can pay for domestic flights for troops coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan on the military’s 15-day Rest and Recuperation program.

Under the largest R&R program since the Vietnam War, troops deployed to the region on 12-month orders are eligible to take two weeks’ leave, getting that chance typically when they reach the six-month point. There are about 132,000 U.S. troops serving in Iraq, and roughly 200,000 in theater.

From Iraq, vacationing troops leave Camp Champion in Kuwait and fly free on military-chartered civilian planes to one of four designated airports: Rhein Main Air Base in Frankfurt, Germany; Baltimore Washington International Airport, Maryland; Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport in Georgia or Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in Texas.

From there, troops were on their own in paying for airline tickets to hometowns or wherever they chose to spend their two weeks of R&R, until the provision — an amendment to the $87.5 billion Iraq supplemental and sponsored by Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., and Rep. Dennis Moore, D-Kan., and which was signed into law Nov. 6 by President Bush.

It specifically states that the funding applies only to troops leaving Iraq and Afghanistan from approved debarkation points on the R&R program and tickets are paid for flights to those troops’ home of record, said Adam Peterman, senior legislative assistant for Rep. Ramstad.

And it is retroactive, which means the hundreds of troops who already have taken leave can seek reimbursement for those tickets, Rep. Moore said.

However, the Army hasn’t finalized details and officials have questions about the the law, such as whether it can even be applied since there is another law that prohibits the government from paying expenses while a servicemember is on leave status, according to officials at Army Central Command and those tasked with managing the R&R program.

And the law makes no mention about paying for tickets for troops returning on emergency leave.

“It’s law. It’s happening,” Moore said. “We’re taking men and women in the armed services and sending them at the direction of the commander in chief to Iraq and Afghanistan. They are serving their country and we’re bringing them back for morale purposes on this program … compliments of DOD and then saying ‘by the way, you have to pay your way home from here.’ I was outraged when I found out this was happening,” Moore said.

A program set up by Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., called Operation Hero Miles, in which travelers donate frequent-flyer miles so troops returning on R&R don’t have to pay their own fares, won’t end because of the supplemental law, said his spokeswoman Heather Moeder Molino. The program will be used if and when money runs out and to pay for tickets for troops who are taking emergency leave, she said.

As of Friday, more than 60 million miles had been donated by airlines and individual travelers through the program’s Web site at www.heromiles.org .

On Nov. 1, the program was boosted to 479 U.S. troops a day who leave Iraq and surrounding countries in the military’s Rest and Recuperation program, up from 270 a day when the program started in late September.

The 15 days of R&R leave excludes travel time to get out of the theater. Commanders are violating the regulation if they charge troops that travel time against the 15 days, which begin at midnight the day after they check into the processing area of one of the four airports.

NASCAR, MBNA lend GIs a hand

NASCAR and MBNA America Bank are helping in the effort to get GIs taking a break from Iraq and Afghanistan home on the cheap.

The two companies are using this weekend’s races to get frequent flyers to donate to “Operation Hero Miles,” a program sponsored by U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md.

The program is an effort to see that troops returning on the military’s Rest and Recuperation Program don’t have to pay for their own airfare once they reach the United States.

Two racecars will display the program logo and Web site address, www.heromiles.org, in races this weekend.

The No. 18 Interstate Batteries/MBNA Chevrolet, driven by Bobby Labonte, is to display the logo at Sunday’s Ford 400 Winston Cup race, and the No. 18 MBNA Chevrolet, driven by Coy Gibbs, was to display the logo at Saturday’s Ford 300 Busch race.

— Sandra Jontz

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