YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — 2nd Brigade troops in Iraq have begun departing on the Pentagon program that gives them 15 days of leave from their wartime assignments.

According to 2nd Brigade officials, the first group of soldiers left on the Rest and Recuperation Leave Program at the beginning of November. Soldiers with special family circumstances were given first priority, officials said.

“The priorities for leave are for the soldiers who have new babies at home, those who have hardships back home but didn’t warrant emergency leave and those who have displayed exceptional performance in theater,” Maj. Tom Huse, the brigade adjutant, said in a brigade statement e-mailed to Stars and Stripes from Iraq.

“The soldiers out here have gone above and beyond their call to duty, so this is a well-deserved break.”

The program is open to soldiers who are on a one-year tour to Iraq.

Many in 2nd Brigade haven’t been home for several months. The unit deployed to Iraq directly from South Korea earlier this year; before the deployment, 2nd Infantry Division leaders gave as many soldiers as they could “block leave” to return home before heading to Iraq.

“For many, this is longest they’ve been away from home, and most have already been in Korea for a year,” Huse said.

“Our leaders have spread the leave evenly across the units, so all of the slots available are being given out favorably and equally.”

Soldiers can request leave dates; once the request is granted, they are sent to Kuwait City International Airport. From there, the soldiers can choose their own destination. Not clear was whether they could choose to return to South Korea, or if the leave must be taken stateside.

Units deployed to Iraq from Germany have been able to return there on their R&R.

“The airline ticket is free and the 15 days of chargeable leave doesn’t start until the soldier is physically in the States, and the leave doesn’t end until they get on the plane to head back to theater,” Huse said. “The soldier’s travel time is not charged.”

2nd Brigade soldiers said the R&R program is a huge boost to their morale.

“It has been almost a year since I have been home. I think this is a great program. It will give us a time to relax and relieve tension,” Pfc. MacArthur D. Ocampo was quoted as saying in the release.

“When I found out this program was being implemented, just the thought of going home raised my morale a lot.”

Even then, Huse said, some of the soldiers have mixed feelings: They’re happy to head home, but are eager, in the way only a soldier can know, to return to their unit “because they are concerned with their buddies’ safety.”

In either case, “this is by far the biggest morale booster we have out here,” Huse said.

Since the program was established in September 2003, thousands of soldiers have gone on leave and returned to Iraq. At its peak, the program shipped almost 500 servicemembers home each day, Pentagon officials said.

The program slowed during the period when units were transitioning in and out of Iraq and was curtailed in February before returning to speed.

The policy stipulates that soldiers can take the leave between the fourth and 10th month in country; 2nd Brigade started arriving in Iraq in August.

Since the brigade’s arrival, at least 16 soldiers have died, 14 from combat-related wounds.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now