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Home, for Better or Worse

Families are struggling with mixed feelings as thousands of service members are granted brief leaves.

October 12, 2003|Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writer

CHESTER, Pa. — Iliana Sanchez had everything in place two weeks ago for her husband's leave from Iraq.

The yellow ribbons were on the porch railing, the American flags in the front yard, the yellow-and-white mums in pots alongside. And Iliana, two dress sizes smaller from stress and worry in the eight months Jose Sanchez has been away, had put in for vacation from her job.

But by the time Jose actually walked off a plane at 11:30 Wednesday night and into his wife's waiting arms, he had been delayed four times by one bureaucratic snag or another. The ribbons had gotten rained on. The mums were starting to wither. Iliana's vacation was almost used up. And even as she watched her husband clasp her 6-year-old daughter's hand in his huge one, Iliana's relief and joy were muted by anxiety over what her husband had seen and done in the war, by frustration at the delays in getting him home, and by the knowledge that she would be at the airport in 15 days sending him back to the fighting.

The Pentagon is worried too. Two weeks into the most ambitious home leave program since the Vietnam War, thousands of military families are struggling with how to cope when Johnny comes marching home again -- then marches back the way he came.

At the Pentagon, officials say they expect some soldiers not to show up for their flights back to Iraq, and they expect others to be so deeply torn at leaving their families again that they will have trouble coping when they return to the war.

But with 130,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq in a military occupation that has become prolonged and bloody, and with tension mounting among service members and their families over yearlong deployments, military officials said they had little choice but to institute the program in an effort to boost morale.

"At first, I didn't encourage him to come home, because I didn't want to say goodbye again," Iliana, 38, said in an interview at her home. As she spoke, her little girl sprawled across her lap, showing a visitor a mouth filled with gaps where she'd lost teeth in Daddy's absence. "I'm alone now and he's not here and it's very different. I don't know what to expect when he comes back. I know he loves us and misses us, but he has seen things and done things in this war that have changed his spirit. I'm afraid that when he comes home he's going to realize how different he is."

Before long, officials say, 800 soldiers a day will be flying out of Iraq on leave. They predict the program will cost the Pentagon $770 million this year alone.

"We know we're going to have crying family members clinging to soldiers at the airport,'' said Joe Burgas, a Pentagon spokesman. "We know we're going to have people who don't make it back on time, maybe people who don't make it back at all. But most soldiers are going to say, 'I've got buddies over there, and they are dependent on me coming back.' ''

The decision to grant home leaves to troops serving abroad for 12 months or more in Iraq and Kuwait is a gamble for the Pentagon. Not only do commanders run the risk that some soldiers will not return to duty, they also fear that some reunions could lead to domestic violence if soldiers and spouses fail to adjust to their temporarily changed roles. And if the program does not run smoothly, it could backfire, intensifying the anger and frustration that military families already feel over the arduous deployments.

The leave program has already gotten off to a bumpy start. The Pentagon is ferrying troops from Baghdad to a military base in Germany or to one of several major airports in the United States, then requiring the fighters to pay to get themselves home from there. But the soldiers are getting so little notice that they are going home -- in some cases only hours -- that they have been forced to buy pricey last-minute tickets for the last legs of their trips.

After hundreds of military spouses complained to federal lawmakers, bills were introduced last week in the Senate and the House of Representatives that would require the Pentagon to pick up the tab for door-to-door flights. At the same time, several major airlines announced that they would give returning troops steep discounts on posted fares.

Other soldiers have been denied leave because they are engaged in sensitive intelligence work or are in units that are poorly staffed. Their families are crying foul.

For soldiers who qualify for the leaves, the Pentagon is scrambling to devise a uniform screening system that would limit the likelihood of granting leave to someone who is a flight risk or who is likely to be abusive at home.

"Just because you're eligible doesn't mean you're going to get this leave," Burgas said. "The Army is concerned about the potential for domestic violence, with spouses at home [used to] having more independence than they have experienced before. And if some guy is telling his buddies that once he gets out he's never coming back, his commander just is not going to let him go. It's harsh but it's true."

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