Gates, Military Leaders in Korea Advocate Normalized Tours
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
SEOUL, South Korea, Jun. 2, 2008 Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today he’s not only receptive to extending U.S. troop deployments here to three-year, accompanied tours, but personally believes it’s “overdue.”
“I don’t see a reason why our troops in Korea should have unaccompanied tours any more,” Gates said, particularly in light of planned operational and quality-of-life changes under way here.
Gates conceded that permitting the 28,000 U.S. troops here to bring their families with them has financial implications, because it would require more family housing and other facilities and services.
“But as a matter of principle, I think it is past time,” he said.
Despite South Korea’s emergence as one of the most modern, progressive and democratic nations in the world over the past 55 years, the United States still rotates its troops here as through it’s still an active combat zone, Army Gen. Walter Sharp, who will take command of U.S. Forces Korea tomorrow, pointed out to the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing in April.
Extending tours and allowing troops to bring their families to Korea would send the message that South Korea is safe, Gates said, and bring assignment policies here in line with those in Japan and Europe.
Particularly in light of other long-term contingency operations, longer, accompanied tours would reduce unnecessary additional family separations, Sharp said in written comments to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Sharp joined the retiring U.S. Forces Korea commander, Army Gen. Burwell “B.B.” Bell, in advocating three-year tours for troops who bring their families and two-year tours for single and unaccompanied troops.
Gates, Sharp and Bell agree that the change would create less disruption in U.S. Forces Korea, cut down on permanent-change-of-station moves and reduce family separations.
The longer tours would improve continuity, stability, and ultimately, readiness, while retaining important regional, institutional and cultural knowledge within the command, Sharp wrote in written statements to the Senate.
Longer tours also would save money, reducing costly troop moves and the need for assignment incentive pay for troops who agree to extend their tours of duty in Korea.
“Rather than providing incentives to unaccompanied personnel to stay longer in Korea, we should focus on enabling servicemembers to bring their families to Korea and establish a more family-oriented environment,” he told Congress.
Bell, a big advocate of “normalized” tours here, cited operational changes taking place on the peninsula that make now the appropriate time to make the change. During congressional testimony in May, he cited plans to move the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division and U.S. joint-force elements from their current location at Yongsan Garrison to south of Seoul. In addition to returning valuable land in the capital city to the Koreans, the move will provide big quality-of-life improvements for troops there, he said.
Sharp told Congress he believes the new tour policy could be put into place as these improvements are made over the next 10 to 15 years, with financial help from South Korea.
But another big payoff of normalization would be closer personal U.S.-South Korean relationships, Bell said during the 13th Far East Forum here in April.
“Right now, over 90 percent of our servicemembers come to Korea for one-year tours without their families – and that means most of them don’t get out and don’t really get involved in their communities after work,” he said. “Instead, they’re in their barracks rooms e=mailing and calling their families who are back in the United States.
“With tour normalcy,” Bell continued, “American servicemembers could come to Korea on three-year tours with their families – families who will establish life-long connections and friendships with the Korean people, just as I have.”