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Pentagon to pay for travel from desert to doorstep.

Byline: From Register-Guard and news service reports

HARRISBURG - Spc. Chad Bailor of the Oregon National Guard's Cottage Grove-based battalion will still have to pay his way home from Fort Hood, Texas, this Christmas to see his wife and three young sons.

But once Bailor goes to Iraq in March, the Pentagon will pick up the tab to get him all the way back to Oregon if he gets leave.

"Good news," said his wife, Sarah Bailor of Harrisburg. "That would be exciting."

In an effort to bolster military morale, the Pentagon soon will begin paying travel expenses for troops to travel all the way home on leave from Iraq and Afghanistan. That includes about 700 Oregon National Guard members serving overseas, said Kay Fristad, an Oregon Military Department spokeswoman.

The cost of that extra leg for tens of thousands of soldiers: $55 million.

An additional 700 Guard members, including Bailor, are part of the Cottage Grove-based 2nd Battalion, 162 Infantry training at Fort Hood with the Arkansas National Guard's 39th Infantry Brigade. Although soldiers there get about 10 days off for Christmas, they've got to pay their own way home from Texas.

And not all can afford it, Fristad said.

"We're trying to identify those who can't get home without assistance," she said. "And we're going to do everything we can to make sure they have the opportunity to come home."

But that will be automatically covered after they go to Iraq.

Until now, the largest R&R program since the Vietnam War has flown soldiers only to three cities in the United States and two in Germany, leaving them to pay airfare for connecting flights if they want to go farther.

Some airlines offered discount fares to help, and a congressman started a program in which Americans donated millions of their frequent flyer miles for service members to use to get home.

But officials said Tuesday they were working up a plan for the Defense Department to begin reimbursing troops for the connecting flights with the $55 million authorized recently by Congress for the coming year.

``If it comes to pass as envisioned by members of Congress, this would be the most generous gesture on behalf of the American people,'' said Maj. Pete Mitchell of U.S. Central Command.

Such full payment of travel expenses for home leave is unprecedented, he said.

To give troops some relief, the Pentagon in late September started giving two-week leaves in the largest rest and recuperation program since the Vietnam War. So far more than 27,000 troops have taken the leaves, Mitchell said.

The arrangement differs from the program in place during Vietnam, when soldiers received leaves to Hong Kong, Singapore or other Asian cities.

The Army said Tuesday it had set no firm date for the start of the reimbursement program, which requires changes in federal travel regulations.

Officials were working on details such as how much would be paid to each soldier, and whether it would be retroactive to cover those who have already taken leave, they said.

``The devil is in the details,'' Mitchell said.

But the intent is to pay the full cost of commercial airfare that troops need to get home from three drop-off points in the states - Baltimore, Dallas and Atlanta - and two in Germany.

Officials estimated that troops have been paying an average of $300 to $500 out of their own pockets to get the rest of the way home.

Some soldiers and their families complained publicly about having to pay for the trips.

Pentagon and congressional officials said they wanted to begin the reimbursements amid worries about morale among troops who are working hard in the war on terrorism and in the Iraq campaign, which is in its ninth month.

Work on the reimbursement plan was first reported Tuesday by the Army Times publication.

The military has ordered yearlong deployments in Iraq because it is stretched thin around the world and didn't get as many international troops to help as the Bush administration had hoped.

Morale has been a concern, since troops and families in the summer began complaining about extended tours of duty and repeated deployments.

There are more than 130,000 U.S. forces in Iraq and neighboring countries and more than 10,000 deployed for the Afghan effort, where violence continues two years after the fall of the Taliban.

Register-Guard reporter Mark Baker contributed to this report.


Oregon National Guard Spc. Chad Bailor shows his sons (from left) Emmett, 5, Douglas, 11, and Caleb, 3.
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Title Annotation:Government; The rule change - at a cost of $55 million - will help soldiers on leave from Iraq
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 3, 2003
Next Article:Boeing's hard landing.

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