There’s sand and then there’s sand.
Sand is dirty and can be the bane of Soldiers’ existence. It leaves a fine layer of grit over everything, even getting into the engines of vehicles and the cracks of weapons. It can violently churn across the desert, taking only seconds to spin into intense, blinding sandstorms.
Sand, however, is white and soft and powdery, bordered by turquoise-blue water and dotted with palm trees. For Soldiers who spend months shaking the former out of everything they own, sand is the stuff of dreams.
Those dreams are easy to grasp thanks to U.S. Central Command’s Rest & Recuperation Leave Program, which more than 1 million servicemembers have taken advantage of since 2003.
Servicemembers and DOD civilians are eligible for up to 15 days of uncharged leave after spending 270 days in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere in CENTCOM’s area of responsibility, according to Lt. Col. David Homza, the chief of R&R;Policy at Army G-1, which runs the program for the Department of Defense. ALARACT 106/2010 outlines the uncharged leave policy.
The vast majority of participants take government-chartered commercial flights back to the States to see Family, but some choose to take advantage of the free airfare and central location of the Middle East to travel abroad. In the past year alone, Soldiers have visited Europe, Australia, Argentina, Tahiti and Fiji and other destinations.
“Everyone wants to travel internationally every once in a while,” said Spc. Kelly Iser, who travelled to England and Scotland on her R&R;in September 2010. “It’s one of their goals to go to different countries, and this is a paid trip by the (military) to get you to that place. It’s a good idea. I’ve heard different stories about Soldiers who go home versus Soldiers who go international. I’ve heard it’s better to do the international than to go home.” It was the best of both worlds for Iser, whose mother and brother met her in the United Kingdom, where they visited extended Family.
Staff Sgt. Sady Lopez went a little farther from home, however. After she spent most of her R&R;on her first deployment to Iraq dealing with Family issues, she wanted to do something different while on R&R;from a subsequent deployment to Kuwait. So she and her boyfriend, Sgt. 1st Class Heath Hestand, both of the 1107th Aviation Group, Missouri National Guard, decided to go down under.
At 18 hours, their travel time from Kuwait to Sydney seemed short compared to the 24-plus hours it usually takes to get to Australia from the States, and she barely noticed any jet lag. And because the plane had two levels and seats that folded into beds"a first for Lopez"she was able to sleep during much of the flight.
Soldiers like Lopez and Iser who decide to travel abroad during R&R;have to fill out a lot of paperwork"more than Soldiers who go home"mostly to fulfill customs and visa requirements. They also have to undergo extra security training. Once that’s complete, Homza said all the servicemembers have to do once they arrive at the Kuwait International Airport in Farwaniyah, Kuwait, however, is tell government travel agents at the gate where they’re going. The agents will then book them on the next flight. Iser and Lopez said they only had to wait for a few hours in Kuwait before they were on their way.
They did face one complication: neither had more than one or two sets of civilian clothes. But relatives in the States were happy to send them, and they were soon headed off"one to pet Koala bears (one of Lopez’s favorite parts of her Australia adventure) and the other, to tour the castles of England.
“Right now, I’m running low on castles to go to,” Iser confessed. “There are some great castles and old churches. It’s great to walk around some of the old towns. You don’t really have to have a specific destination. Just the walking around is a lot nicer than the States.” And in addition to the usual sights of Parliament and Madame Tussauds, she also visited the Sherlock Holmes Museum and spent several days in Scotland.
The break, both Soldiers said, was the best thing that could have happened, although Iser added that it was several days before her brain joined her body on vacation and she was able to stop worrying about what she was missing back in Iraq.
“It was great. It was like shutting off the brain, to not have to worry about doing any projects or keeping up to date with what’s going on. It was a little hard to shut off my brain when I first started. I still wanted to know what I was missing out on, but it was a pretty good vacation. It was perfect timing.”
Lopez said that because her R&R;came near the end of her deployment, returning to the grind wasn’t so difficult. “By the time we got back we only had two months left until we came home. It just made coming back a whole lot easier. It’s always very hectic. It was definitely an awesome break to take it at that time.”
She and her boyfriend explored Sydney, from the Opera House to the Sydney Zoo and Sydney Tower, which offered views of the ocean.
“It’s pretty much like New York,” Lopez said of Sydney. “It never goes to sleep. People are always on the street. In the morning you see the crazy crowd, going to school or going to their jobs, but if they push you, they might actually say, ‘I’m sorry. Are you OK?’ They’re actually more caring, but they do have the same fast food, they have Starbucks, they have McDonalds.”
Lopez’s favorite part of the trip, however, was the 8-hour drive south from Sydney to a country resort on a lake in Marshfield, where they went hiking and canoeing and even tried kangaroo"a delicious, firmer version of steak.
“You get to see the countryside and those hills are amazing. You have these views of the valley. I guess they have some kind of weed that is yellow and it covers the fields. It’s beautiful. It’s something that I have never experienced before,” she said.
“My second favorite was definitely touching the koala,” she continued. “Those little things are adorable. You just want to take them home with you. They’re so soft. It’s amazing how soft they are. Some of them are friendly. Some of them are not. There were a few at the local zoo and I got to pet them and take pictures with them. That was priceless.”
Equally priceless: international thanks and recognition. If Lopez and her boyfriend had gone back to the States, they would have received heroes’ welcomes, but it turned out that the people of Australia were equally grateful for their service.
“When we told them why we were there, a lot of people over there were very welcoming,” Lopez explained. “They were very happy and proud of what America was doing over there. And of course, Australia at the time also had soldiers in Afghanistan who were working with the Army as well, and they were very proud of their soldiers.
“That’s nice to know, that we are known worldwide, and there’s other people as well who appreciate what we do and are contributing to what we do. It’s definitely worth it knowing that. It makes you happy and it makes you proud and it makes you continue doing what you’re doing, just for those individuals.”
Editor’s note: For more information about the R&R;Leave Program, visit http://www.armyg1.army.mil/randr.
COMING HOME ON R&R;Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen who decide to return to the States during R&R;, fly via military aircraft from their assignments in Iraq or Afghanistan to the Kuwait International Airport and wait for the next available commercial charter flight back to the U.S., Lt. Col. David E. Homza, Rest & Recuperation policy chief said.
At least two flights run back and forth each day"one to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and a second to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport"both making short stops in Leipzig, Germany. Atlanta and Dallas were chosen, Homza said, because the Department of Defense wants to get servicemembers home as quickly as possible, and their southern locations make winter weather delays unlikely (although not impossible). The two airports are also within driving distance or require only short hops to many major installations including Forts Stewart and Benning, Ga.; Fort Campbell, Ky.; and Forts Hood and Bliss, Texas.
The flights are far from the rough, uncomfortable ride many Soldiers have experienced on military aircraft. They’re much like any other international commercial flights, said Annette Jardine, an Air Force mom. Jardine is also a flight attendant and purser with North American Airlines, the airline that, along with its parent company, World Airlines, runs most of the flights. During the eight-plus-hour flights, servicemembers receive multiple meals and (nonalcoholic) drinks, and can watch a variety of movies"often before they’re released on DVD.
But unlike most commercial flights, servicemembers also get a friendly ear. Jardine and her fellow flight attendants have listened to Soldiers talk about everything from how great it is to go home to how hard it is on the battlefield to impending divorces.
“Sometimes it’s just to give them a friendly voice to talk to, someone to just listen. I think sometimes they just want someone to listen and be a sounding board. Even though we try not to play psychologists, it’s hard. You kind of have to think of life experiences. You just talk about them and share it,” she said, adding that many of the young men she meets remind her of her 24-year-old son.
Regular international flights also don’t get quite the same welcome when they touch down on U.S. soil. Flight Capt. R.K. Smithley always passes on the thanks and appreciation of the air traffic controllers and asks the servicemembers to “make some noise” and show how happy they are to be home.
“That usually gets a pretty good response with cheers and yells and hooahs, particularly from the Army guys. They usually let us hear them pretty loud and proud when we’re up front after we land the plane,” he said, adding that the Dallas-Fort Worth Fire and Rescue squad meets each military flight coming into Dallas with a truck on each wing. They shoot water across the front of the plane in a gesture usually reserved to honor captains on their final flights.
“It’s fantastic,” Jardine explained. “No matter how many times I’ve seen it, I still get excited to see it again. They shoot water at the airplane on both sides with the fire trucks and then the USO is always there waiting with people and they’re cheering and thanking everybody. It tugs at your heart. It’s really sweet. I think for a lot of (Soldiers), it’s a surprise when they come home and they get that kind of greeting.”