Chance of a Short Trip Home for Soldiers on Yearlong Tour

The New York Times

ASHINGTON, Aug. 10 — The commander of the 101st Airborne Division, which is on patrol in northern Iraq, has proposed an unusual holiday that would allow his troops to visit home once in their lengthy tours of duty.

In a letter to families of the division's troops, the commander, Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, wrote of his efforts to fly the soldiers back to the United States for up to two weeks of leave after they are midway through a 12-month deployment.

But he warned of obstacles, in cost and security — including the risk of a plane full of homewardbound soldiers being shot down over Iraq.

"While I don't want to get hopes up too high, I should mention that we are also working on a midtour leave program," General 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."

Approval of the proposal and its financing would have to come from senior Army leadership, Pentagon officials said.

Like so many letters home from the front, this correspondence from General Petraeus opens a window to life in wartime, even if viewed across great distances, and the sentences are stitched with humor and pride and sadness.

"Dear Screaming Eagle Families," the letter began, a reference to the division's famous shoulder patch. "Greetings from northern Iraq."

The general described procuring a division's worth of supplies in the field, and noted that "buying for a `family of 20,000' is not easy." Every day the division buys 100,000 pounds of ice from local merchants and consumes the entire output of a large bread factory.

"We've got just about every one of our soldiers on a cot now," he wrote, and fresh socks, underwear and T-shirts arrived recently.

A copy of the letter, which circulated widely by e-mail, was provided by one recipient, and its authenticity was confirmed by the division's public affairs office at Fort Campbell, Ky.

To give families a sense of the soldier's day, General Petraeus surveyed the mission given to the 101st: "During the past couple of weeks, each brigade has also apprehended other important former regime leaders, pre-empted several attacks on our forces, trained and patrolled with new police officers, uncovered arms and ammunition caches, and assisted in a vast number of reconstruction projects, security tasks, and other missions to improve the situation for the citizens of northern Iraq."

The division lost six soldiers in those operations in three ambushes, and the general described the memorial service held in the field. "The brotherhood of the close fight was very much on display during the ceremony," he wrote.

The Army recently announced yearlong rotations for soldiers in Iraq. While troops are sent to Korea for a year, and the first round of American peacekeepers in the Balkans spent 12 months in Bosnia, yearlong deployments have not been assigned to such a large number of American troops since the Vietnam War. The 101st is due to leave Iraq in February or March.

"We all recognize the hardships this will impose on families who have already been without their Screaming Eagle for over five months now — and, in some cases, were separated because of Afghanistan deployments for six months in the year before that as well," General Petraeus wrote. "As I have been deployed for over 17 of the last 24 months, my wife and I understand the challenges with which you're contending due to this prolonged deployment."

In writing his letter, General Petraeus was no doubt aware that some families of soldiers from the Third Infantry Division had publicly complained about the long deployment and the delayed return of their troops, who were among the first to arrive in the region.

Troop morale is of increasing concern to the Pentagon's senior civilian and military leaders, who are watching personnel statistics to see if the lengthy deployments of active duty and reserve forces since Sept. 11, 2001, are affecting recruitment and retention.

To ease the separation of his troops from their families at home, General Petraeus wrote, each battalion will soon set up a computer center for Internet access and e-mail, and the number of telephones available to the troops will be increased. Over 200 satellite dishes should be installed in time to watch the fall football season, he wrote.

But reliable electricity remains a challenge, he wrote, which especially complicates efforts to cool the sleeping quarters.