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300 US airmen bound from Iraq, Afghan to Louisiana

September 3, 2005

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. military will send home
from Iraq and Afghanistan more than 300 Air Force airmen based
at an installation in Mississippi battered by Hurricane Katrina
to allow them to assist their families, officials said on
Saturday.

The airmen, both active-duty airmen and reservists, will
end their deployments early and return to Keesler Air Force
Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, to help their families and aid in
base recovery in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Air
Force said in a statement released in Qatar. They will not be
participating in the broader relief effort in the region,
officials said.

In addition, nearly 100 airmen due to deploy from Keesler
to Iraq and Afghanistan will remain at the base, with their
positions overseas filled by others in the Air Force not
affected by the hurricane, the Air Force said.

“We’re robust enough (in manpower) that this wouldn’t upset
anything. But it’s the right thing to do to bring them back,”
said Lt. Col. Patrick Barnes, an Air Force spokesman at the
Pentagon. Barnes said there were roughly 20,000 Air Force
personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the U.S.
Central Command region.

Keesler Air Force Base took a direct hit from Katrina but
its staff and their families survived unharmed in a shelter,
the base said. Half the base was under water, with critical
functions operating on backup power.

“We are facilitating the effort to expeditiously replace
airmen directly affected by this catastrophe with other Air
Force personnel,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Allen Peck, Combined
Forces Air Component deputy commander, said in a statement.
“They can’t effectively perform the mission if their heads and
hearts are focused on the safety and welfare of their loved
ones.”

Air Force personnel with family living in the
hurricane-ravaged region who are not assigned to Keesler must
request emergency leave through normal channels, officials
said, and leave will be granted on a case-by-case basis.

Army Lt. Gen. John Vines, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq,
said on Friday that 10,000 U.S. ground troops in Iraq are from
the region affected by Katrina. But he said that only those who
have had a family member killed or hurt will be permitted to
return home.

“The problem is that the security mission goes on here. And
if we take some out, those that are left are at some risk. It
increases their risk,” Vines told reporters at the Pentagon.

Officials said a combat brigade of about 3,000 soldiers
from the Louisiana Army National Guard, mobilized to active
duty to fight in Iraq, were about to come home as part of their
regular rotation schedule. Vines said the unit’s return may be
accelerated by about a week.

A list of needs presented to President George W. Bush by
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco included the return of a
Louisiana-based combat team from Iraq to help with disaster
relief.

“We have never needed them so much,” she said.




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