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How should exhausted, stressed-out warriors be compensated for deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan early or too often?

With extra time off when they get home.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff successfully fought for that solution, called “administrative absences,” after rejecting a plan to pay active and reserve members an extra $1,000 a month when deployed or mobilized early or so frequently that total time deployed exceeds newly announced rotation goals.

The issue, which sparked months of internal debate, was how to fulfill a promise to troops made Jan. 11 by Defense Secretary Robert Gates when he announced the force “surge” into Iraq. Gates said then that his department was devising a “new program to compensate individuals, in both the active and reserve components, who are required to mobilize or deploy early or extend beyond established rotation policy goals.”

Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said in February during congressional testimony that the additional compensation plan for units sent early into Iraq likely would be $1,000 a month. What emerged, however, was this initiative to provide extra time off.

Earned “absences,” proponents contend, will give members more time to relax with families, time that won’t count against their 30 days of annual leave. The rationale is that this can be implemented quickly and that it’s logical “recognition” for being deployed too frequently, officials explained.

“We used you a lot. We used you more than it was expected. Why don’t you take some time off once you get back,” said Michael Dominguez, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, in unveiling the plan at the Pentagon last week.

It isn’t clear yet how troops are reacting, but the plan landed with a thud in the Pentagon press room April 18. Reporters bombarded Dominquez with questions about how one-, two- or four-day passes could be seen as an adequate substitute for cash. They also questioned whether commanders, who will control use of administrative absences, will allow more down time for troops in units that need to prepare quickly redeployment.

An extra $1,000 a month would have matched payments already being made to members who since last year have seen their war-zone tours extended to meet operational demands. When Gates announced April 11 that all soldiers in U.S. Central Command’s area of operations, including Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa, will have to serve 15-month tours rather than 12-month tours, he also said they would get an extra $1,000 for any month, or partial month, served in theater beyond a year.

Senior Defense civilians reportedly favored giving members the extra cash, too, for early deployments and mobilizations. Dominguez had some awkward moments defending the final plan at its unveiling.

The extra days off begin to accumulate for active-duty members when total time deployed in their last 36 months exceeds a 12-month threshold. So when members reach their 13th month of deployment, they earn a one-day pass. At 14 months, they’ve earned another day and so on.

Days accumulate for Guard and Reserve members when they are mobilized more than 12 months of their last six years in service.

Authorized absences will accumulate at an accelerated pace the longer members are deployed or mobilized. For example, active-duty members earn an extra day for each month deployed past 12 only through their 18th month deployed. Then days accumulate at the rate of two per month for months 19 through 24. Extra days off will grow at four per month once total time deployed exceeds 24 months in any 36-month period.

Deployment rates are at such a pace today that soldiers and Marines being reassigned now to Iraq or Afghanistan are expected to return home with about 18 days of “authorized absences” to use in addition to their leave.

Soon after the plan’s unveiling, National Guard leaders, who were not consulted, complained internally that the extra days off won’t benefit Guard and Reserve members who typically return from war, demobilize and resume their civilian jobs. Guard leaders urged reconsideration of the plan, or at least authority to add flexibility to it by allowing returning Guard personnel to choose extra money over extra days off. Some movement was detected.

“Our policy, as published, represents itself as a minimum [and] services could propose additions,” said DOD spokesman Marine Corps Maj. Stewart Upton. “At this time we are aware of one service that is reviewing whether it wants to propose an addition.”

The day after Dominquez unveiled the plan, Defense officials arranged a second press “backgrounder” where officials explained the “administrative absence” incentive in more detail. They also revealed that the department will seek authority from Congress to establish a more flexible “sell back” option for leave earned during wartime deployments and force mobilizations.

This would enhance indirectly the value of “administrative absences.”

Under current law, service members can sell back 60 days of unused leave over an entire career. Officers can do so only when they separate from service or retire. Enlisted members can sell back unused leave at separation, retirement or when they reenlist, but no more than 60 days over a career.

The cash value of leave is tied to basic pay. When exchanged for cash members typically get from $100 a day to $250.

In wartime, members can bank up to 120 days of leave for future use but the 60-day sell back limit still applies. Defense officials want to expand sell-back authority so any unused leave beyond 120 days, if earned during deployment or mobilization, isn’t lost but automatically gets cashed out.

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