If commanders on the ground have their way, soldiers deployed to Iraq may be getting a shot at a two-week leave back to their home station, with the flight covered by Uncle Sam.

In a July 31 letter to families, 101st Airborne Division Commander Maj. Gen. David Petraeus wrote of his efforts to fly his soldiers back to the United States for up to two weeks of leave after they are midway through a 12-month deployment.

“While I don’t want to get hopes up too high, I should mention that we are also working on a midtour leave program,” Petraeus wrote. “This will not be easy — especially as the residual air defense threat (there have been several surface-to-air missile launches to the south of our area) has prevented the resumption of civilian passenger flights into Iraq so far. And it will be very expensive for our Army.”

A copy of the letter was provided to Stars and Stripes by the unit’s public affairs office at Fort Campbell, Ky.

In Baghdad, the commander of the 1st Armored Division, Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey, confirmed that the policy was being pursued, but also wanted to caution servicemembers that it had not yet been approved.

“Midtour leave is probably going to happen. But DOD may or may not approve it. If they do, between the fifth and the 10th month [of a deployment], a soldier [would] be eligible for two weeks leave.”

Dempsey stressed that not everybody is going to be able to take this leave, even if it’s approved.

Thousands of soldiers in Iraq would be eligible each month, but force levels need to be maintained at 90 percent. Thus, prioritization will need to take place.

“Where I see it fitting in is for those guys who almost made emergency leave criteria,” Dempsey said.

An example, he said, is when a soldier’s wife has a baby while he’s deployed, they don’t qualify for emergency leave but that soldier would be one of the first out.

As Dempsey envisioned it, airfare would be paid for by the government, but the leave would be chargeable to the servicemember.

The Pentagon hopes to have completed in roughly two weeks detailed plans on how to compensate troops deployed to Iraq.

Proposals include the leave, possible extra money for those units tagged to take on the yearlong deployment, and other “R&R,” said Navy Cmdr. Chris Pendleton, the military assistant for the Deputy Undersecretary for Military Personnel Policy.

Details have yet to be finalized and would ultimately be approved by David Chu, the Defense Department’s undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness.

“We’re in the final stages of articulating a plan that would cover everything from leave for all the troops there to R&R and compensation,” Pendleton said. “It’s really quite intricate. But we think in two weeks, it’ll be ready.”

Pendleton said it is too premature to discuss any of the possibilities being considered.

Some troops in Iraq, such as those with the 101st, have been able to take short rest and relaxation jaunts to places such as nearby Qatar.

To circumvent security threats during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Pentagon chartered the Cunard Princess, a British luxury liner, aboard which troops took a three-day break from operations in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region.

“We’re working an extensive review of what can be accomplished … so that the soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen will know what they’re up against and what to expect and convey that to their families,” Pendleton said.

The Army recently announced yearlong rotations for soldiers in Iraq. While troops are sent to South Korea unaccompanied for a year, and the first round of American peacekeepers in the Balkans spent almost 12 months in Bosnia, yearlong deployments have not given a large number of American troops since the Vietnam War.

— Lisa Burgess contributed to this report from Baghdad, Sandra Jontz from the Pentagon and Pat Dickson from Washington, D.C.

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