The soldiers said they believe the respite will help sagging morale.

BALTIMORE (AP) – The first troops to take advantage of the Army’s unprecedented R&R program left Sunday to return to Iraq, many saying they felt energized by their two weeks of rest and recuperation.

“It’ll make the next six months easier to get used to,” said Staff Sgt. Jason Whitaker, 33, from San Antonio.

The 200 troops, part of the military’s largest leave program since the Vietnam War, were among the first to rotate home, according to an Army spokesman.

They originally arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport Sept. 26 amid concerns that two weeks with family and friends would be just long enough to make them miserable when the time was up. Many of those returning to Iraq on Sunday thought otherwise.

“Morale is kind of low over there,” said Whitaker, who serves with a forward surgical team. “So I think this will make the guys feel a whole lot better.”

Staff Sgt. Jeffery Hannon, 32, from Fort Hood, Texas, said, “I tried to cram as much family time as I could. I took my 8-year-old son to a couple of football games, and I got reacquainted with my daughter.”

Hannon said his daughter was 4 months old when he left for Iraq last January and was just beginning to call him “Daddy.”

“It was good to let her know that she still has a Daddy,” Hannon said.

Hannon, who serves with the 13th CosCom support unit, described his leave as “a bittersweet kind of deal. It helped our families to see us again. By the same token, we had to leave again.”

Sgt. First Class Kenneth George, 45, said Iraq was his third and most difficult deployment. George, who served in Desert Storm and Bosnia, said it was harder to get adjusted to home life than it will be to readjust to military life.

He said it took him a couple days to wind down from the constant threat of attack and the trauma of seeing buddies wounded or killed. “But as soon as we get back there and hear the gunfire and the mortar fire, we’ll snap right back.”

Many of the troops said they found the public very supportive, regardless of how people may have felt about the war. They described seeing yellow ribbons and road signs welcoming them home.

Hannon said there was a church convention in the motel where he and other soldiers stayed last night, and this morning, soldiers were pulled into the services and prayed over and hugged.

“It made us feel real good,” Hannon said.

At the same time, some soldiers found that people back home did not understand fully how hard it has been in Iraq.

“If one person dies, five or six are getting wounded,” said George. “People are only hearing about the one man who is killed.”

Since Sept. 26, there has been one flight per day from Iraq with an average of 240 soldiers on board, said Lt. Col. Robert Hagen, an Army spokesman.

This is the first time soldiers have been allowed to spend leave at home on this scale, Hagen said.

Soldiers who had been wounded and returned to duty – and those with newborn children they have not seen – are at the top of the list.

The leaves differ from those given to troops in Vietnam, who got five to seven days in any of several Asian cities, Hawaii or Australia, but weren’t permitted to return to the continental United States, said Hagen.

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