ARLINGTON, Va. — There is no guarantee Uncle Sam will pay commercial travel costs within the United States for troops venturing home for some R&R from Iraq and Afghanistan.

But one Army official tells troops that one way or another, they’ll get you home.

“We’re doing what we can legally and financially,” said Rhonda Paige, a spokeswoman for the Army’s R&R task force. “We want to make sure this is about the soldier and his family; we want them to get the break. What we can’t do because of a lack of funding, we’ll explore other [options].”

While Congress passed an amendment to the 2004 Defense spending bill that sets aside $55 million for domestic flights and other travel costs for troops on the military’s 15-day Rest and Recuperation program, the measure only “recommends” the Army foot the bill. President Bush signed the measure into law Nov. 24.

There are two snags: The $55 million is nowhere near enough, according to a Congressional Research Service memo quoting Army officials, and the law states the Army “may” pay for these flights, but isn’t bound by law.

“As written, this language is not law, and is permissive and not mandatory in nature,” reads the two-page, Nov. 20 memo written by David Burrelli, a specialist in National Defense, Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade. “Further, it allows DOD to provide assistance for travel-related expenses (such as emergency hotel accommodation for servicemembers or travel to their homes) not otherwise specifically authorized in law.”

Congress created the CRS to be its own source of nonpartisan, objective analysis and research on legislative issues.

The R&R program, the largest since the Vietnam War, allows troops deployed to the region on 12-month orders two weeks’ leave. There are about 132,000 U.S. troops serving in Iraq, and roughly 200,000 in theater.

Since the program’s inception in Iraq in September, roughly 26,000 troops have taken R&R leave, said Maj. Pete Mitchell, a Central Command spokesman.

When the military started the program in late September, news that troops returning home had to pay their own travel costs once they arrived in the United States angered citizens and legislators, prompting a draft of the budget amendment.

There’s also a conflict between Congress’ new recommendation that the Army pay for troops’ travel and the existing Joint Federal Travel Regulation, which states the services cannot pay travel, lodging and meal expenses of troops on leave status.

Permissive law or not, the Army is doing what it can to help the troops defray travel costs, Paige said.

“The Army is currently working through the details in the reimbursement policy for the Rest and Recuperation program, and there are still a number of details that need to be resolved and worked through before the new policy takes effect and is implemented, including changes to the Joint Federal Travel Regulation and … specific dates,” she said.

No start date has been determined.

“The key is to make sure there is equity for everyone,” Paige said. “If we could pay for every leg of every trip for every soldier, we would do that.”

Burrelli, who researched the military’s R&R program at the request of U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., said he did not investigate what the R&R program would cost, and only cited in his memo cost information given to him by Army officials. He declined to name the officials.

Since the Army has not started paying these expenses, there is no way of knowing what the program might cost, or if the $55 million is insufficient, Paige said.

The memorandum prompted Ruppersberger to boost publicity for a program he started called “Operation Hero Miles,” in which travelers donate frequent-flier miles so troops returning on R&R and emergency leave don’t have to pay their own travel fares, said his spokeswoman Heather Moeder Molino.

Paige said the program is one of the alternatives the Army is relying on to help pay for the troops’ travel expenses.

From Iraq, 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; and Baltimore Washington International Airport, Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in the United States.

Los Angeles is also a designated airport, but there has been no demand from troops so far to use it, Paige said.

Until November, the program had been different in Afghanistan. There, troops on more than six-month orders were eligible to take up to 10 days, but the actual number of days taken varied among troops, Mitchell said.

Now that orders for Afghanistan-deployed troops have been extended to 12 months, they too may take part in the R&R program, but with slight differences.

Roughly 4,000 of the 8,000 troops now in Afghanistan are eligible. They can leave from one of three debarkation points at Bagram or Kandahar, or Karsi Kanabad in Uzbekistan, then fly to an unidentified intermediate air base in Central Asia, where they will pick up a Space Available flight to Rhein-Main and link up with an R&R flight for BWI, Mitchell said. They won’t be able to fly to Georgia or Texas at this time, he said.

R&R freebies at Darmstadt

Soldiers on rest and recuperation leave or who have recently returned to the 233rd Base Support Battalion in Darmstadt, Germany, are in for a treat.

At Morale, Welfare, and Recreation facilities, troops can bowl free for an entire day at the bowling center; receive a free car wash at the Auto Skills Center; get one free 8-by-10 photo enlargement and free developing for one roll of film at Serendipity; get one free admission to the Performing Arts Center; and receive free equipment rental with any Outdoor Recreation trip. Outdoor Recreation is also offering 10 percent off any one-day trip.

For more information, call DSN 348-1550 or civilian 06151-69-1550.

— From staff reports

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