BWI may lose troops on leave

Army considers moving R&R program's point of entry to busier airports

March 31, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

The Army may stop using Baltimore-Washington International Airport as an entry point for a program that has brought thousands of vacationing soldiers to Maryland -- as well as millions of dollars to the state's economy.

The Rest and Recuperation Program was launched in September to reward troops with two weeks off after long tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Planes flew daily from Kuwait to BWI, where soldiers could catch flights to their hometowns.

But the U.S. Central Command has asked the Army to evaluate the program and consider shifting the flights to Atlanta and Dallas-Fort Worth -- where bigger airports offer soldiers more connections.

The Army "will look at all the things that impact on service members' ability to travel in an efficient way and maximize the use of their leave time here in the United States," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

A decision is expected in the next month. Among the major considerations will be the number of flights at the competing airports and their hours of operation. Airports open around the clock allow more flexibility in scheduling.

Maryland officials estimate the program has brought $20 million to the state, mainly through family members who travel here to greet their returning soldiers at BWI. The program is also a point of pride for the state, allowing airport workers and volunteers to thank the troops for their service.

The potential loss of the flights, which was first reported yesterday on the Web site of the Baltimore Business Journal, prompted Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to send a letter this week to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. "Considering BWI's experience and success as an R&R gateway," Ehrlich wrote, "as well as the multitude of services and conveniences it offers to the troops and their families, I respectfully urge the Department of Defense to continue using BWI as a gateway for as long as the R&R Program is deemed necessary."

The program at BWI gained national attention in the fall when U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger urged citizens to donate their frequent-flier miles to the troops so they wouldn't have to pay for the final leg home.

About 535 million miles were donated, and the Hero Miles program was such a success that Ruppersberger persuaded his colleagues in Congress to pass legislation requiring the federal government to pay for those flights home.

The USO (United Service Organizations) estimates about 44,000 troops have participated in the R&R program, with 32,000 traveling through BWI and 6,000 each through Atlanta and Dallas. It says the Army has praised services provided to troops arriving at BWI.

Every soldier is greeted by a veteran, given a 20 percent discount at airport food stands and has the opportunity to shower at the Comfort Inn. And when soldiers pass through the airport on their way back to war, they are given packages stuffed with calling cards, disposable cameras and sunscreen.

"The airport community really wants the R&R program, and the USO volunteers love it," said Adrienne Trout, director of airport services for the USO of Metropolitan Washington.

BWI has about 700 takeoffs and landings daily, compared with 1,800 at Dallas-Fort Worth and 2,400 at Atlanta. Defense officials have also raised concerns about BWI shutting down overnight, making it harder to schedule flights from overseas and to make connections.

But Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he is confident those concerns can be addressed. He sent a letter to the Pentagon yesterday making the case for BWI and said he intends to talk to the Maryland congressional delegation today. "We're going to do everything we can to keep the operation here, and I think we have the best argument to keep it here than anywhere in the country," he said.

Ruppersberger and Ehrlich pointed out that the 5,000-square-foot USO lounge at BWI is among the largest in the country, and that Veterans of Foreign Wars volunteers provide troops with free transportation to the two other Washington-area airports.

"The state of Maryland is honored to have the opportunity and responsibility to support our military troops and families," said BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean. "Considering BWI's record of success and dedication to this program, the state simply feels the Army should weigh this decision carefully."

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