Operation Hero Miles

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The Operation Hero Miles Story


By Congressman C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (Maryland)

"Operation Hero Miles" is an innovative program. It allows troops stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan to fly home on leave for free. It also gives family members of wounded servicemen and women free plane tickets to visit their loved ones recovering at military hospitals across the country.

The program is brilliant in its simplicity. Travelers donate their unused frequent flyer miles to the Pentagon and troops and families use them to get free tickets.

A young Army Sergeant from Colorado was able to spend Christmas with his new bride thanks to the generous donations of travelers across the country. A Navy Petty Officer was able to fly home from Iraq to Arkansas to be with his wife and newborn daughter as the little girl underwent an important surgery. A mom in Wisconsin was able to fly to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, DC, to be with her daughter, an Army Sergeant, who is recovering from injuries sustained from explosive shrapnel in Iraq.

I represent Maryland's 2nd Congressional District that includes Baltimore Washington International (BWI) Airport. In September of 2003, I visited the airport to greet the first planeloads of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines coming home for two well-deserved weeks of Rest and Relaxation (R&R) from Iraq and Afghanistan. I met with young men and women in the USO Gateway Lounge at BWI and thanked them for their service to the nation. The servicemen and women are risking their lives to promote democracy in Iraq and fight the war against terrorism in Afghanistan. I told them that their country appreciated their sacrifices as well as the sacrifices of their families.

I was shocked to learn that these soldiers were flown to BWI Airport by the Department of Defense but then required to pay for their connecting flights to their hometowns across the country. Many, especially those heading home to the West Coast or small towns a long way from major airports, said they were shelling out close to a thousand dollars for a ticket. For many of these younger servicemen and women, the trip home cost them a half month's pay or more.

After my visit, I went back to Capitol Hill and supported legislation that would have paid for R&R travel all the way to the soldier's hometown. The measure failed. I got together with my staff and together we came up with a creative solution that doesn't cost the American taxpayer a dime. "Operation Hero Miles" was born.

We put together a website, www.heromiles.org, and wrote to every airline serving BWI asking them to sign on to our plan. Delta Airlines was the first airline to join the program. Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines quickly followed. Now we have eleven major airlines participating in the program, more than 90% of the domestic airline market.

Soon I learned that troops on Emergency Leave who need to come home to attend the funeral of a loved one, be present for the birth of a child, or attend to a seriously ill parent are required to pay for their own airfare as well. We quickly expanded "Operation Hero Miles" to include these troops, too.

We expanded "Operation Hero Miles" again to give free plane tickets to family members of wounded troops so they can travel to the military hospital where their loved one is recovering. Sometimes the love and support of family is the best medicine to help these servicemen and women recover from their wounds.

As of April 2004, just six months into the project, 540 million miles had been donated and thousands of soldiers and their families have benefited from this program. I believe Americans are truly patriotic. They want to help our men and women in uniform fighting for our freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Operation Hero Miles" gives ordinary citizens an opportunity to help our troops in a very direct way that makes a real difference in their lives. I know first hand that many of the soldiers and their families would not be able to afford the trip if it were not for these donations.

The USO of Metropolitan Washington gave me the USO Service Award this year because of my work on "Operation Hero Miles" but it's not about me. It's about the troops and treating them the way they deserve to be treated.

We are pleased to report that the Department of Defense began paying for all R&R troop travel in January 2004 in part because of all of the publicity generated by the program. But, there is still a huge need for "Operation Hero Miles" as we continue to reunite families of injured soldiers.

In fact, I am pleased to report that the program is now permanent. I introduced legislation in April, 2004, that gave the Department of Defense (DOD) the authority and flexibility to give free, unrestricted, last minute plane tickets to servicemen and women on leave - to handle an urgent family situation or other unexpected emergency. The "Operation Hero Miles Act of 2004," HR 4130, gives DOD the authority to collect unused frequent flyer miles, mileage credits, or free tickets and designates an office to manage "Operation Hero Miles." The legislation was supported on both sides of the aisle. Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-CA) and Ranking Member Ike Skelton (D-MO) of the House Armed Services Committee and Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-CA) and Ranking Member John Murtha (D-PA) of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee were co-sponsors of the legislation. The measure overwhelming passed the House and Senate and was signed by the President on October 28, 2004.

I believe this can only help the general welfare and morale of our men and women in uniform. I believe that the stress of serving your country for long tours of duty in foreign lands should be recognized even in places where not a single shot has been fired for years. If we can make a soldier's life a little easier by quickly getting him or her home for free to deal with an urgent family situation, I believe it can only help us improve troop retention rates and make the most of our investment in training and experience.

The world has become a much smaller place in an era of the internet, video cell phones, and twenty four hour cable news, but nothing can match that first hug, the taste of good home cooking, or waking up in the hospital to the loving faces of family. Americans have said they want to help our servicemen and women and we should let them.

Please join me in supporting "Operation Hero Miles."

Thank you for your interest and thank for your service to our country.

Congressman C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger (Maryla