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Program Eases Iraq Returns
By Jon R. Anderson
Stars and Stripes
European Edition

February 2, 2004

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 barracks."

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 effort.

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 reunion anxiety.

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 packages.

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, Europe Region.

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 Command.

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 back.

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 in Europe.

Sound Off...Do you think a program like this is needed to help troops get back to their regular lives? Join the discussion.


This article is provided courtesy of Stars & Stripes, which got its start as a newspaper for Union troops during the Civil War, and has been published continuously since 1942 in Europe and 1945 in the Pacific. Stripes reporters have been in the field with American soldiers, sailors and airmen in World War II, Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo, and are now on assignment in the Middle East.

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Copyright 2004 Stars and Stripes. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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