- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Donors have contributed enough frequent-flier miles for more than 12,700 military service members to go home for rest and relaxation after tours of duty in Iraq.

The Operation Hero Miles program is one of several goodwill campaigns operating nationally for U.S. soldiers in Iraq during the Christmas holiday season.

Operation Hero Miles was started Nov. 1 by Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Maryland Democrat.

By yesterday morning, the program had accumulated 309 million miles from 13 airlines and their customers at its Web site, www.heromiles.org.

“We’ve been at it for over seven weeks,” Mr. Ruppersberger said. “It’s amazing the power of the Web.”

The flights carry soldiers arriving from Iraq from three U.S. ports of entry airports to their homes free of charge. The ports of entry are Baltimore-Washington International, Dallas-Fort Worth International and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International airports.

In September, the Pentagon began giving soldiers in Iraq two weeks of leave for rest and relaxation.

Mr. Ruppersberger said he conceived of the idea after greeting returning soldiers Sept. 12 as they arrived at BWI.

In response to questions about what could be done to help them, the mostly lower-ranking soldiers said they needed to get home.

Mr. Ruppersberger said some of the soldiers told him, “We have to pay half a month’s salary if not more to go home from BWI.”

During a meeting with his staff, “we came up with this idea,” Mr. Ruppersberger said.

In November, Congress allocated $55 million to help the soldiers pay their domestic travel expenses. However, the Congressional Research Service said the full cost is significantly greater. So far, the money is tied up in Defense Department efforts to develop rules and a plan for distributing it.

“As of now, they’re in midstage on this,” said Sgt. John Talbott, spokesman for the Army’s rest and relaxation program. “They’re still ironing out the bugs.”

Operation Hero Miles is supposed to be a more immediate solution. The free trips are distributed by lottery through a military contractor ticket agent in Kuwait.

The program “is helping soldiers who would otherwise have a tough time,” Sgt. Talbott said.

One soldier who paid for a trip home to Prineville, Ore., out of his own pocket was Pfc. Jered Meadows, an infantryman returning to Baghdad this morning on a flight out of BWI.

“It would have been nice” to get a free airline ticket, he said.

Nevertheless, he said the $300 he paid for a round-trip ticket was worth it.

“Everybody is really excited to be home,” he said.

An average of 470 service members have arrived daily for the rest and relaxation trips during November, with the rate picking up for Christmas.

The airlines, which transfer donated frequent-flier miles from their computer records to the military contractor, played a crucial role.

“We contacted all the airlines that fly to BWI,” said Heather Moeder Molino, spokeswoman for Mr. Ruppersberger. “First we got Delta, and it’s taken off from there.”

Other airlines that have donated frequent-flier miles or allowed their customers to donate them include American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and US Airways.

American Airlines donated 10 million miles on Veterans Day. Others have matched miles donated by customers.

“We’re getting more and more every day,” Mrs. Moeder Molino said. “When we first started we thought we could help a few troops.”

Even the organizers are surprised by the response.

Word of the campaign spread through news accounts, the Internet and radio and television talk shows.

The financial institution MBNA donated a Hero Miles ad on the back of its NASCAR race car.

America Online put a link to the Web site on its welcome page. Employees of the film studio Dreamworks last week donated a half-million miles.


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