WASHINGTON - At least 28 soldiers have failed to report for flights back to Iraq after two weeks of leave in the United States or to call ahead with an explanation, US military spokesmen said.
The military sought to play down the no-shows, noting that they represented only a tiny fraction of the more than 1,300 Iraq-based soldiers who have been given two weeks of leave since the program began September 25.
"I don't think anybody here at this level is in a panic over the situation," said Major Pete Mitchell, a spokesman for the US Central Command.
The US Army Human Resources Command has reported that 28 soldiers have not shown up for their flights back to Iraq and have failed to call to give a reason for their absence, according to Joe Burlas, an army spokesman.
A small number of those people have been given emergency extensions of their leave because of family problems or other reasons, he noted.
"In all cases, the circumstances will be investigated," Mitchell said. But he added: "We're not seeing this as a chronic, overwhelming problem here."
Soldiers based in Iraq are flying out of the country at a rate of 279 a day under the program, which was designed to ease the pressure of year-long deployments in a combat zone on soldiers and their families.
Those arriving in the United States come through Baltimore/Washington International Airport, where they are given instructions on the time and date of their return flight. They are also told to notify army officials ahead of time if for some reason they cannot make the flight.
No soldiers have been declared absent without leave (AWOL) yet, a decision which must be taken by their commanders in Iraq, Burlas said.
"As of yesterday (Monday), no commander had done that," he said.
When soldiers fail to report for duty, the army will typically try to contact them at their leave address, he said.
A soldier will be carried on the roster as AWOL for 30 days before he or she is classified as a deserter, he added.
Copyright 2003 AFP