Tuesday, August 29, 2006

After year in Iraq, soldiers face 18-hour bus ride home

Boston Globe
After year in Iraq, soldiers face 18-hour bus ride home
By Lisa Wangsness

For at least a year, the soldiers had survived one of the most dangerous jobs in the world: driving trucks on the violent roads of Iraq for the US Army. Half the company had been at it nearly two years.

But when the 150 soldiers in the Massachusetts-based 220th Transportation Company, 94th Regional Readiness Command, arrived at Camp Atterbury in Indiana just after midnight Friday for demobilization, they were told they would have to take the bus home -- an 18- to 20-hour ride.

Furious families of the soldiers called the office of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

``I was absolutely outraged," Kennedy said in a phone interview yesterday. ``These are men and women who have worn our uniform that bears the flag of the United States of America. They deserve a hero's welcome."

The senator dashed off a letter to Secretary of the Army Francis J. Harvey, pointing out that the Indianapolis International Airport was 38 miles from Camp Atterbury.

``With air service such a viable option, I don't believe putting these soldiers on buses for an extended overnight ride is the most appropriate way for the US Army to show its gratitude for their considerable sacrifices," Kennedy wrote.

Yesterday, aides to Kennedy said, the Army notified Kennedy's office that it would charter a flight to bring the soldiers home. The flight time was still being worked out last night, an aide to Kennedy said, but a welcome-home celebration for the unit is planned for tomorrow afternoon in Boxborough.

Kennedy said he plans to bring the matter to the attention of Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia. Kennedy said there is a role for bus transportation in the military, but no American soldier returning from an extended stay overseas should have to take the bus home after demobilization when a plane would be more comfortable and convenient.

``This is absolutely intolerable," he said.

He said the soldiers were told there was not enough money to pay for their air travel home.

``This is a demobilization," he said. ``They're on their way home, they served in Iraq and to be told . . . there are not enough resources in the Defense Department budget to treat people first-class is indefensible, unwarranted, and outrageous."

Army officials said they could not confirm plans for a flight.