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Posted at 11:16 AM ET, 12/10/2010

Four soldiers hitch a deluxe ride home with Gates

By Craig Whitlock

Four U.S. soldiers going home on leave from Afghanistan hitched a sweet ride out of the war zone Thursday by snagging seats on a special flight: the 747 Boeing aircraft that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates uses to crisscross the globe.

Gates flies in a big white plane - with United States of America emblazoned on the sides - because he needs to maintain secure command-and-control links with military commanders around the world. Even after accounting for the Air Force crew, Gates' military and political aides, and an 18-member traveling press corps, there was space available for a few extra passengers on his trip this week to the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Prior to his arrival Tuesday in Kabul, Gates sent word to the Army that he'd be happy to give a lift to any troops whose leave times coincided with his schedule. The Army rounded up four willing takers, including a married couple going home to see their three young children for Christmas.

"He is happy, thrilled to be able to share this plane with these brave young people and show his gratitude, in small measure, for their service," Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said.

Pentagon officials withheld the names of the VIP soldiers for privacy reasons, but provided some biographical details. For instance, married couple had been deployed to Kandahar, the traditional heartland of the Taliban. Husband and wife each hold the rank of Sgt. First Class and have spent at least 14 years in the armed forces. They have deployed four times during their careers: to Kosovo, twice to Iraq and now Afghanistan. They're headed to Texas to see their kids, ages 5, 4 and 2, who are being cared for by a relative while Mom and Dad are serving in Afghanistan.

The third soldier has been in the Army for 3 years and works as a human resources specialist. A resident of Hammond, Ind., he's going home to see his fiancee for the holidays.

The fourth soldier is a rare breed indeed in Afghanistan: an Army band member who toots the euphonium, an instrument similar in size to a tuba. A resident of Charleston, S.C., he's going home to see his wife and a child.

Besides grabbing a seat with secretary of defense, the soldiers got another treat during a stopover Thursday night in Abu Dhabi, where Gates's traveling party stayed at the Emirates Palace Hotel, a five-star temple of marble, beachfront and sky-high prices. The soldiers didn't have to pay for their rooms, but they did snap plenty of pictures of the splendiferous building and grounds.

By Craig Whitlock  | December 10, 2010; 11:16 AM ET
 
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Comments

What a heart warming story of a leader showing genuine care for soldiers.
I am impressed!

Posted by: USArmyMajor | December 10, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

What a great little bonus for these four soldiers!

Posted by: LittleRed1 | December 10, 2010 5:53 PM | Report abuse

Too bad none of those afforded this opportunity were combat troops!

Posted by: terrylightfoot | December 11, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

@terrylightfoot:

(a) Coming out of Kandahar, they're ALL combat troops. The married couple has been deployed to Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan -- not typical REMF tours.

(b) The article says, "... Gates sent word to the Army that he'd be happy to give a lift to any troops whose leave times coincided with his schedule. The Army rounded up four willing takers ..."

Usual procedure has for decades been to look at who's been sitting in the aerial port and take the "next" individuals going out to the aircraft's destination or beyond.

I didn't read any prejudice against the combat specialties on the part of the Secretary or his party.

Posted by: JKGordon | December 11, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

What ever the comments expressed above.

Of the hundreds/thousands of diplomatic flights(senators, congressmen, factfinders, generals etc) that have gone to Afghanistan since we have been there, how many have offered rides home to our miltiary? (None that i have heard of). Gates does deserve praise for this. Moreover, if reflects well on him as a person.

Posted by: kevinrog | December 14, 2010 6:53 PM | Report abuse

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