Soldiers Miss Flights Back To Iraq

Tuesday, October 21, 2003; Page A20

More than 30 soldiers who came home from Iraq for two weeks of leave have failed to show up for their flights back to the combat zone, military officials said yesterday.

The soldiers, among more than 1,300 troops so far in the first large-scale home leave program since Vietnam, have yet to be declared absent without leave -- a violation of military law, said Army Col. Paris Mack, the Pentagon official overseeing the program.

A week after return flights began, 28 soldiers had not made it to Baltimore-Washington International Airport for the journey back to Iraq, said Air Force Maj. Mike Escudie, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Tampa. Six others did not make yesterday evening's flight out of BWI for unknown reasons, said Lt. Col. Robert Hagen, an Army spokesman.

Escudie said "a small number" have been granted emergency extensions by military commanders because of extenuating circumstances, including deaths in the family. Military officials could not say how many presented valid reasons or how many others had failed to contact authorities.

"Many of them are understandable due to illnesses or canceled airline flights," Escudie said. One soldier was unable to board his flight to BWI because he lost his wallet, while another had a sick baby, Hagen said.

But a military advocacy group cited two cases in which service members called to say they do not want to return to the long and difficult mission in Iraq.

"Ultimately, every one of these cases will be looked into and there will be a determination if there are any mitigating circumstances," said Marine Maj. Pete Mitchell, a Central Command spokesman.

Mack said the soldiers who have missed their flights are "definitely a concern," but she added that the Army had anticipated that some soldiers would not return, and that the numbers thus far are small.

"If you put it into the context of the 1,200-plus who have returned, it's not a large number," Escudie said.

Mack said no consideration is being given to curtailing or canceling the leave program because of the absent soldiers. "The program is going very well," she said.

A survey of 1,935 soldiers in Iraq published last week by the military newspaper Stars and Stripes found that 49 percent rated morale in their unit as low or very low.

Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center in Silver Spring, said the absences demonstrate that "there is a morale problem." Robinson said he had been contacted by two soldiers home on leave who do not want to return to their units

One of the soldiers, a National Guardsman from Florida, missed his scheduled flight back to Iraq three days ago, Robinson said. "I told him he needs to get his [rear end] back to Iraq," Robinson said.

"I definitely don't want to go back there," the guardsman told a reporter for CBS News. "I think most people -- if not all people who are there -- don't want to be there."

The soldier did not return a message left on his cell phone yesterday. "He's on the run," Robinson said.

Soldiers failing to return from leave on schedule is an old story for the military, but nonetheless potentially a significant problem for commanders. Soldiers could face demotion or jail time for the offense.

"We had the same problem in Vietnam," said retired Marine officer Gary Solis, who commanded a company in Vietnam and later wrote a history on military law during that war.

Solis, of Alexandria, said the combination of "Australian women and Australian beer" kept several of his Marines from returning from leave on time.

The leave program from Iraq, which unlike in Vietnam is bringing soldiers home to the continental United States to reunite with their families, may make it even more difficult for soldiers to return, Solis said.

"It's a lonely thing to do, but then that's the soldier's duty," he said.