WASHINGTON — Beginning this fall, the Marine Corps will guarantee nearly all Marines 14 months at home for every seven months they spend in war zones, the first payoff for service members of the United States' diminishing military presence in Iraq.
The Army hopes to make a similar change by the end of 2011, guaranteeing soldiers two years at home for every year they're in war zones.
The change is the first concrete sign that the stress on the U.S. military caused by the years-long engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan is beginning to ease.
The lack of time at home between repeated combat tours — what military planners call "dwell time" — has been blamed for exacerbating a range of woes, including higher rates of suicide, divorce and domestic violence among returning troops and a record-high suicide rate in the Army.
More time at home between combat tours also will allow the military to address what commanders say is a huge backlog in training that's left forces with little preparation for events that once were considered routine. For example, many Marines, who are expected to move from sea to land, have never been on a ship; instead, they've been on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Also on the agenda: more cross-training in the use of different armaments.
"We aren't trained in a full spectrum of operations," Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told troops stationed in Saudi Arabia during a recent visit. Increasing time at home, he said, "will allow us to train and more importantly to rest and be with our families."
Mullen said in an interview with McClatchy that the drawdown in Iraq was the biggest reason for the change. The military is planning to have no more than 50,000 troops in Iraq by the end of this summer, down from the current 97,000.
The price of the nation's eight years of warfare has been high for the families of deployed troops. At the peak, when the military had 172,000 troops in Iraq, the Army gave troops only 12 months off for every 15 months were deployed. Marines got seven months at home for every seven months they spent in combat.
That meant in many cases that troops spent only a few weeks with their families between deployments as they traveled again to train for the next tour.
At many of the largest Marine and Army bases, so-called Family Readiness programs grew to provide additional support for spouses and counseling for children, who suffer from higher levels of depression while parents are away.
Commanders hope that the additional time will ease some of those pressures.
They're also debating what training should be reinstated and what's no longer needed. They acknowledge that the need to prepare troops constantly for service in Iraq and Afghanistan has left little time for training in skills that aren't needed immediately.
For example, the Marine Corps estimates that of its roughly 202,000 troops, only about 15,400 in the last decade have trained regularly in amphibious warfare, the kind of beach-landing assault for which the Marines are famous.
For a force that the Pentagon says must be prepared for the "the broadest range of operations — from homeland defense and defense support to civil authorities, to deterrence and preparedness missions," the limits on training have been risky.
"Not only do we have to fix equipment but modernize" the force, said Brig. Gen. David H. Berger, the Marine Corps' director of operations. "We haven't had the time to do that."
The Marines will institute the increase in home time this fall when a major rotation of troops comes out of Afghanistan, where 19,000 Marines will be serving.
The Army's plan, which will go into effect sometime next year, would increase time at home from the current 15 to 18 months to two years for every combat tour. That might stretch to three years if the U.S. is able to cut the number of troops it has in Afghanistan, said Gen. George Casey, the chief of staff of the Army.
Berger said the only developments that could derail the planned increase in time at home would be a need to increase the number of Marines deployed to Afghanistan or the outbreak of another major conflict.
"Once the war in Afghanistan is over," he said, the Marines would be able to consider 21 months at home for every seven months in a war zone.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow national security developments at McClatchy's Nukes & Spooks.