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First Iraq Troops Arrive in Md. for R&R


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By WILEY HALL, Associated Press Writer

LINTHICUM, Md. - The first U.S. troops serving in Iraq (news - web sites) to get a vacation as part of the military's largest home leave program since the Vietnam war arrived in Maryland Friday and were looking forward to seeing their children and eating some home-cooked food

The plane carrying 192 soldiers landed just before 6 a.m. at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The troops were greeted by about a dozen family members and a sign reading, "Welcome Home U.S. Armed Forces. Thanks for Serving Our Country."

"It's good to be back. My wife just had a baby and I'm really looking forward to seeing her," said Pvt. Larry Burns, 20, a member of 173rd Airborne Brigade from Burlington, Vt. His baby, Alexia, is two weeks old.

Pvt. Bryan Harper, 23, of Portland, Ore., was headed home to see his parents and sister. He said that in five years in the Army, he'd learned not to make complicated arrangements for time off.

"The first thing is, get a good nap," said Harper, also a member of the 173rd. "Two weeks is not a lot of time to spend on leave. I've learned on leave you don't make plans because they never work out. Just spend time with family and friends."

A few soldiers left the airport immediately with relatives, but most planned to catch connecting flights to other cities. After waving to the TV cameras, some soldiers pushed through a crowd of reporters to reach a bank of pay phones.

The announcement Thursday of the plan stirred excitement among families of troops serving in Iraq, but many said the two-week leave will bring heartbreak when it's time for their loved ones to return to duty.

They were flown Thursday from Kuwait en route to Germany and the United States, taking leave from deployments that are turning out to be longer and tougher than expected.

"If he got the opportunity, I'd tell him definitely to come," said Michelle Jansen, 24, wife of Spec. Scott Jansen of the Army's 101st Airborne Division.

"I think definitely the having to say goodbye again would definitely be worth the 15 days," she said. "Better than nothing."

The program was ordered to provide relief and boost morale for forces serving 12-month tours of duty in the hot, dangerous and sometimes primitive conditions in Iraq, as well as those in support roles in neighboring countries. That means it's available to the vast majority of the more than 130,000 troops deployed there, officials said.

The program offers 15-day vacations, with some transportation paid, for every soldier, sailor, airman or Marine staying in region for a year, said Marine Maj. Pete Mitchell, a Central Command spokesman.

The government pays for the flights to Germany and Baltimore. Troops continuing on from there to their homes or other places will cover that expense. Eventually the military hopes to also have flights to Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and Los Angeles.

Yearlong rotations were ordered during the summer for most troops as violent resistance to the occupation spiraled and the Bush administration found little success in getting more nations to contribute forces.

The subject of deployment lengths has been sensitive, with some soldiers and their families complaining bitterly about delays in their homecoming, repeated deployments and the extension of tours.

"First of all, rest and recuperation ... is essential just because what they're being asked to do is pretty darn difficult," Mitchell said of the troops. "But it's more than that; we also believe rest and recuperation will improve readiness."

He said the mental and physical break from Iraq will make forces "that much more alert, that much ... more on top of the game."

Bob Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, took an opposite view, saying he recalls that there was a disproportionate number of casualties among those back from leave in Vietnam compared to the rest of the troops. He said troops go through a rigorous and intense period preparing for deployment, then take time to adapt to a combat zone.

"To get yanked out of that is such a trip in your own head ... it makes it really hard to come back in," he said. "It was sort of like you broke stride ... you're distracted."

Still, he said, he would never say he was against giving leaves.

"My memory of my R&R experience is very vivid," said Muller, who served in the war in the late 1960s with the Marines. "The night before departure was just raucous, exuberant, everybody was pumped. A week later, coming back, nobody said a word — and I mean it was absolute stone silence."


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