By Will Dunham Sat Sep 3,12:12 PM ET
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.