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ARLINGTON, Va. — Though ground commanders in Iraq have the authority to deny their troops R&R leave, the U.S. Central Command program that grants deployed fighters leave time still is operational, officials said.

The program, dubbed Rest and Recuperation, "has never been canceled or suspended," said Army spokesman Hank Minitrez, in spite of units in theater being told otherwise.

"Basically, it's a commander's program," Minitrez said. "Yes, it's a CENTCOM program, but authority is delegated to commanders on the ground as to who goes on R&R and [who] is tasked to stay for missions. They define operational requirements."

The program, started in September to give 15 days of leave to troops deployed on 12-month orders in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, was curtailed in February as new U.S. forces began transitioning into theater to replace outbound troops.

Because the policy stipulates leave can be taken between the fourth and 10th month in country (though most aren't granted leave until the six-month mark), many troops were not eligible.

So far in May, an average of 87 troops fly out daily on R&R orders, down from an average of 200 a few months ago, and down from 479 a day when the program was in full swing last fall and winter.

While "operational requirements" might have led leaders of the 1st Infantry Division, for example, to cut by nearly 85 percent the number of soldiers tapped for the program between May 1 and June 15, that is not the tone for the overall program, which will be picking up as more troops become eligible, Minitrez said.

There are roughly 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and another 20,000 in Afghanistan. Troop numbers are not provided for other countries, such as Kuwait or Qatar, said Central Command spokesman Capt. Bruce Frame.

However, the roughly 25,000 Marines deployed to Iraq, and 2,500 now in Afghanistan, don't qualify for CENTCOM's R&R program because they are there on 6- and 7-month orders, shy of the 12-month requirement.

Instead, Marines in Iraq are eligible for a four-day break at a resort in Qatar, said Marine Corps spokeswoman Maj. Carolyn Dysart in Baghdad."As long as you're in theater for 90 days, you're eligible for the Fighter Management Program," she said.

Anyone in theater more than three months is eligible, and officials did not know Thursday if Marines are given preference for Fighter Management since they don't qualify for the R&R program.

A decision on whether any of the 1st Armored Division soldiers, who in April received 90-day extension orders, now will be eligible for the leave remains with the division commander, said Minitrez, the Army spokesman. The Army has been tapped as the executive agent to run the theater's R&R program.

In February, because military-operated aircraft was needed to rotate troops, vacationing troops were instead put on commercial airliners out of Kuwait, Minitrez said.

The Army plans to return to using chartered flights in order to provide more consistent travel to troops and fly more of them out, he said.Additionally, planners might stop using Baltimore/Washington International Airport in Maryland as a hub for returning troops. Instead they will use Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport — two hubs closer to where most deployed troops seem to be traveling, officials said.

No time line has been established on when they might return to chartered flights, Minitrez said.

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