New School Signals Commitment to Families, Alliance
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
CAMP CASEY, South Korea, Sept. 16, 2010 The Land of the Morning Calm isn’t quite so calm these days here at one of the northernmost U.S. bases on the Korean peninsula.
Army Gen. Walter L. "Skip" Sharp, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, chats with a student as he signs the ribbon he’ll soon help to cut, officially opening the new Casey Elementary School at Camp Casey, South Korea, Sept. 15, 2010. Courtesy photo by Yu Hu Son
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Once the domain of single soldiers or married ones here on one-year, unaccompanied tours, it’s now reverberating with domestic activity, and -- for the first time since the U.S. military arrived here six decades ago -- the sound of school bells.
Clifford Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, joined Army Gen. Walter L. “Skip” Sharp yesterday in cutting the ribbon for the new Casey Elementary School.
The school, less than 20 miles south of the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, opened its doors for the new school year Aug. 30. It’s housed in a former barracks building, renovated at lightning speed to accommodate 363 kindergarten through eighth-grade students, most of them children of 2nd Infantry Division soldiers.
And because the school already is “bursting at the seams,” Principal Shelly Kennedy is looking forward to an expansion next school year. That’s when a second barracks building being renovated next door will be ready to accept about 250 more students.
“The classrooms might be a little crowded for now, but families are together,” Kennedy said. “That’s what matters.”
The new school represents another major step in Army Gen. Walter L. “Skip” Sharp’s initiative to normalize tours across the Korean peninsula and improve the quality of life for servicemembers and their families.
“This reduces stress on the military,” he told American Forces Press Service during a helicopter flight to the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “With families already separated by deployments, why have an unaccompanied tour if you don’t have to?”
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates approved the normalization plan in December 2008, paving the way for longer, accompanied tours for the 28,500 U.S. servicemembers stationed throughout South Korea.
The plan, being instituted as U.S. Forces Korea prepares to relocate all of its troops south of the South Korean capital of Seoul within the next several years, is proceeding as quickly as the infrastructure can accommodate military families, Sharp explained.
Major construction is under way at Camp Humphreys, which is transforming from a quiet aviation base off the beaten track from Pyongtaek into a major hub for U.S. forces.
But because the 2nd Infantry Division “Warriors” aren’t expected to make the move south for another five or six years, Sharp put the wheels in motion to make their current homes -- Camp Casey, Camp Red Cloud and Camp Stanley -- more family-friendly now.
Command-sponsored tours have long been offered in most of South Korea, but the so-called “Area 1” north of Seoul had been restricted to single or unaccompanied servicemembers, most serving one-year tours. That meant these posts had no family support centers and activities, no family housing and no schools.
“So even when we started normalizing tours, we basically had to say, ‘You can bring your families, but only if you have no school-age kids,” Sharp said.
The only alternative for more than 700 command-sponsored families in Area 1 was to send their children to private schools off post or put them on a bus for an hour-plus ride to attend school at U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul.
Casey Elementary School has changed all that, introducing a dynamic Stanley said he picked up on the minute he entered the building before yesterday’s ribbon-cutting. He cited the “infectious enthusiasm” of a committed, passionate school staff, and a military community supporting it every step of the way.
The new school has proven to be a hit with the military families, and most importantly, military kids.
“I actually love it here,” said eighth-grader Hailey Blake, daughter of Army Cpl. Robert Harmon and one of the first children to arrive at Camp Casey about two years ago. “The people here are awesome.”
Strolling through the sparkling school hallways, lined on both sides by brand-new, turquoise-colored lockers, eighth-grade class president Christine Meehan relished no longer having to take a long bus ride to school each day.
“It feels great, especially being the first ones here at our new school,” said Meehan, daughter of Army Sgt. Thomas Meehan.
One perk of being in Casey Elementary’s inaugural class, Kennedy said, is that Meehan and her classmates will get to choose their mascot and school colors.
But Army Staff Sgt. Tom Merkert said the benefits run far deeper. With three deployments already under his belt, he’s delighted to be able to have his wife and two children, both students at Casey Elementary, along during his assignment with the 2nd Infantry Division’s 1-72 Armored Battalion.
“It’s great, really comforting to still be able to go overseas and not be away from your family,” he said.
“This means families get to have quality time with their soldiers,” agreed Teresa Tucker, wife of Army Maj. Gen. Michael Tucker, the 2nd Infantry Division commander. “It means that life for them here is somewhat normal – and that’s not the way it used to be.”
Robert Nicholson, who teaches math and science to middle-school students at the new school, experienced “what used to be” first-hand when he was stationed here as an airman.
“There’s been an unimaginable change,” Nicholson said, “and it’s all for the better.” He called excitement about the new school, and the chance for families to be together in Korea, “palpable.”
“You see the difference in the kids. They’re happy to be here. They’re happy to be with their families. The families are very supportive of everything going on here, and the staff bends over backwards.
“That makes this a great place to work,” he declared.
Kennedy admitted she had doubts when she arrived in March from Yokoska, Japan, that the concrete shell that houses Casey Elementary would be ready for the new school year. But the construction continued full speed ahead, wrapping up in record time.
“It smells new, the kids are excited, and it’s just a beautiful facility,” she bubbled.
“The best I can describe this is a ‘Field of Dreams.’ Build it and they will come,” Kennedy said during her ribbon-cutting ceremony remarks. “We are making history today.”
“This is a great day for our Army and a great day for our Warrior community,” said Army Col. Hank Dodge, commander of U.S. Army Garrison Red Cloud. “It provides stability for our soldiers. It provides stability for our families and it is the right thing to do.”
Tucker called the opening of Casey Elementary School tangible proof of the Army’s commitment to improving quality of life for its soldiers and their families.
“The fact that we have a school here speaks volumes that the Army is willing to invest in its families,” she said.
But Sharp said it also improves U.S. capability by reducing the turmoil of permanent change of station moves, and underscores the enduring U.S. commitment to South Korea.
“To allow servicemembers to be here two and three years rather than just one year at a time has hugely increased capability,” he told families at a luncheon before the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “It strengthens the alliance and sends a huge deterrent message to North Korea.”