HEIDELBERG, Germany — Troops and family members eagerly anticipating reunion
after a year of untold hardships — both in
Iraq and at home — may feel like they've earned a nice, long vacation.
But there's a few things returning soldiers need to take care of first, Army
leaders in Europe say.
Don't worry: U.S. Army Europe Commander Gen. B.B. Bell has made it clear: no
training, maintenance or other unit work until troops have had plenty of time
for rest and recuperation. Bell calls it time "to heal the warrior spirit."
But Army leaders say soldiers won't be simply dumping desert fatigues and
disappearing on block leave.
Despite a heavy snow outside, it was standing-room-only last week at
Heidelberg's Patrick Henry Village Pavilion for two hours' worth of detailed
briefings for spouses and rear detachment leaders designed to break down what
will need to be taken care of as troops hit the ground. The briefings were also
beamed to military communities in Darmstadt, Mannheim and Kaiserslautern over
video teleconference even as the first V Corps troops based in those areas
began arriving home.
Officials are planning additional briefings for 1st Armored Division
communities in the coming weeks as "Old Ironsides" troops begin their return
from Iraq, as well.
The first seven days
Officials have mapped out a 45-day program designed to smoothly transition
troops from the combat zone to home station, said Col. Eddie Stephens, chief of
plans and policies with the Army's European headquarters in Heidelberg. Called
the "Deployed Cycle Support Program," the process is designed to "focus on the
human dimension of redeployment," Stephens said.
And that process begins the moment the plane touches down in Europe.
"Arrival is Zero Day," Stephens told the gathered spouses. "All we want to do
is account for the soldier and get him reunited with his family or into the
He said each wave of arriving troops will be greeted by a general officer and
a brief welcome-home ceremony. The only other speed bump before being released:
Soldiers will have to turn in weapons and any other sensitive items.
The next day, he said, begins a seven-day series of briefings, medical
screenings and other tasks. That's seven days straight — no weekends or federal
holidays that might happen to fall within that window. The good news is that
soldiers will be on a half-day schedule, working only about four hours a day.
The idea, he said, is to "gradually reintroduce" soldiers to life outside the
combat zone and allow leaders to identify any soldiers who might be having a
difficult time readjusting.
The Army's top chaplain in Europe, Col. Kenneth Leinwand, said deployed unit
chaplains and local community chaplains in Europe were "working in tandem" to
prepare soldiers and their spouses for the stress and family friction that
typically come in the wake of a long deployment.
Leinwand said 28 reserve "ministry teams" have come to Europe to help in that
Community leaders are also planning a number of retreats not only for
couples, but also for single soldiers. Meanwhile, school leaders will have
teams of counselors and psychologists on hand to help children deal with any
The fun begins
After soldiers have ticked off all 17 required "pre-block leave" items on
their reintegration checklist, they will be eligible to immediately begin 30
days of vacation.
The Army has reopened the Von Steuben hotel in Garmisch specifically for
returning troops and those on midtour R&R leave, said Stephens. The Patton
Hotel, another Army-run lodge in Garmisch, has dedicated half of its rooms for
troops just out of the combat zone. Both facilities are offering discounted
Returning troops and their families can also expect deep discounts in their
local communities for everything from trips and tours to arts-and-crafts
programs, said Russ Hall, the chief of the Installation Management Agency,
Hall added that plans were in the works to extend the time parents could
remove their preschool children from Child Development Centers without being
charged. Currently, parents can take their children out for two weeks. Hall
wants to double that.
He said a final decision had not been made, but stressed "we need to go ahead
and bite the bullet on that one" so families could spend the entire block leave
together without having to pay for child care not being used.
Likewise, Diana Ohman, chief of Department of Defense Dependents Schools in
Europe said teachers and administrators are preparing for extended absences
among school-age pupils.
Ohman stressed that parents should provide written notice and help ensure
children gather any course work in advance. Pupils, she said, will have two
weeks to make up any missed assignments upon returning.
Show me the money
With tax breaks and combat zone stipends, many troops should have plenty of
cash waiting for them when they get home.
But they should also be prepared to see a lot of that extra money in their
paycheck disappear, said Col. Kevin Troller, commander of the 266th Finance
On average, most troops have been getting an extra $1,000 a month, he said.
But tax exclusion, hazardous duty and hostile-fire pay all end once soldiers
leave the Middle East.
"Remember, though, having your spouses back is priceless," quipped Troller,
when briefing family members on Tuesday.
He reminded family members that while money can be contributed to the popular
Savings Deposit Program only while soldiers are downrange, direct deposits to
the program are not turned off automatically when troops return. Troller
recommended canceling those direct deposits 90 days before soldiers return or
risk having the money stuck in bureaucratic limbo while requesting to get it
Troops whose family members returned to the United States while they were
deployed, said Troller, should also remember to request Cost of Living
Allowance for families once they return. Again, it's something soldiers have to
ask for — it doesn't happen automatically, he said.
Back to work
Once block leave is over, officials say a final eight days have been carved
out for soldiers to finish up any unresolved personal issues. That's also the
time to check off any remaining items on the reintegration checklist.
Battalion commanders will use the checklist to certify each soldier has
completed the reintegration process with U.S. Army Europe headquarters,
Stephens said, so troops should expect that to be high priority when they get
back to work.
That rounds out the 45-day plan. From there, he said, focus will shift to
fixing gear and eventually heading back out to the training ranges.
Officials hope to have units combat-ready within 270 days after arriving back
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