"The first thing is, get a good nap," said Pvt. Bryan Harper, 23, a member of 173rd Airborne Division from Portland, Ore.
"Two weeks is not a lot of time to spend on leave," he said. "I've learned on leave you don't make plans because they never work out. Just spend time with family and friends."
Harper and the 191 other soldiers who arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport about 6 a.m. are the first wave in the military's largest home leave program since the Vietnam war.
A dozen family members waited at the airport to greet the soldiers, most of whom were catching connecting flights to their home cities. After waving to TV cameras, some pushed through a crowd of reporters to get to the pay phones. A sign read: "Welcome
Home U.S. Armed Forces. Thanks for Serving Our Country."
"It's good to be back," said Pvt. Larry Burns, 20, of Burlington, Vt. He was looking forward to seeing his wife and his daughter, Alexia, who was born two weeks ago.
Pfc. James Short, 23, of Pittsburgh, cradled his 8-week-old daughter in the airport, saying simply, "It feels great."
Staff Sgt. Christina DiFlaurio, 36, of El Paso, Texas, couldn't wait to surprise her daughter, who turns 16 on Oct. 2.
"I hope to be there when she gets home from school, sitting on the couch, saying, 'Hi!"' DiFlaurio said. In her knapsack was a stuffed camel she bought in Kuwait as a gift.
The group left Thursday for a 16-hour trip that included a stop in Germany, where 78 soldiers got off the plane for leave in Europe.
The announcement Thursday of the leave plan stirred excitement among families of troops serving in Iraq, but many said the two-week break will bring heartbreak when it's time for their loved ones to return to duty.
The program was ordered to provide relief and boost morale for forces serving 12-month tours of duty in the hot, dangerous and sometimes primitive conditions in Iraq, as well as those in support roles in neighboring countries. That means it's available to the vast majority of the more than 130,000 troops deployed there, officials said.
The program offers 15-day vacations, with some transportation paid, for every soldier, sailor, airman or Marine staying in region for a year, said Marine Maj. Pete Mitchell, a Central Command spokesman.
The government pays for the flights to Germany and Baltimore. Troops continuing on from there to their homes or other places will cover that expense. Eventually the military hopes to have flights to Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and Los Angeles.
Yearlong rotations were ordered during the summer for most troops as violent resistance to the occupation spiraled and the Bush administration found little success in getting more nations to contribute forces.
The subject of deployment lengths has been sensitive, with some soldiers and their families complaining bitterly about delays in their homecoming, repeated deployments and the extension of tours.
"First of all, rest and recuperation ... is essential just because what they're being asked to do is pretty darn difficult," Mitchell said of the troops. "But it's more than that; we also believe rest and recuperation will improve readiness."
He said the mental and physical break from Iraq will make forces "that much more alert, that much ... more on top of the game."
Bob Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, took an opposite view, saying he recalls that there was a disproportionate number of casualties among those back from leave in Vietnam compared to the rest of the troops. He said troops go through a rigorous and intense period preparing for deployment, then take time to adapt to a combat zone.
"To get yanked out of that is such a trip in your own head ... it makes it really hard to come back in," he said. "It was sort of like you broke stride ... you're distracted."
Still, he said, he would never say he was against giving leaves.
"My memory of my R&R experience is very vivid," said Muller, who served in the war in the late 1960s with the Marines. "The night before departure was just raucous, exuberant, everybody was pumped. A week later, coming back, nobody said a word - and I mean it was absolute stone silence."
By Wiley Hall