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American Forces Press Service

Korean Tour Normalization Benefits Families, U.S. Interests

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 29, 2009 – Tour normalization in South Korea will benefit U.S. servicemembers and their families and also assure Asian allies of American commitment to the region, the commander of combined and U.S. forces in Korea said here today.

Army Gen. Walter Sharp told members of the Defense Writers Group that making South Korea an accompanied three-year tour for servicemembers also will pay off with greater capabilities for U.S. and South Korean forces.

Sharp said the process should have started a decade ago. “We had to get to the point in Korea where we were comfortable with the quality of life and comfortable with the situation on the ground,” he said.

Sharp’s predecessor, Army Gen. B.B. Bell, briefed Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in April 2008 on the process. “It was clear to [Gates] that it was time to move on and to make Korea stationing just like Germany and Japan,” Sharp said.

Having troops for three years rather than one year increases unit capabilities and saves money in not having to train new people each year, Sharp said. “It greatly reduces the stress on families, because why have an unaccompanied tour if you don’t need to?” he added.

The change also shows U.S. commitment to Northeastern Asia beyond the date South Korea takes operational control of forces there.

“One of the fears you hear on operational control transition on April 17, 2012, is what is the U.S. going to do on April 18, 2012? Are you out of here?” Sharp said. But the presence of families shows America is in for the long haul. It stresses the fact that the United States believes the peninsula and the region is a vital national interest.

The process will take some time. U.S. and Korean officials are working together to ensure the facilities are in place as families move to the “Land of the Morning Calm.” In August 2008, about 1,700 U.S. command-sponsored families were in Korea. “This summer we were up to about 3,000,” Sharp said, adding that the number is expected to grow to about 4,800 to 4,900 command-sponsored families by this time next year.

When everything is in place and when construction is finished at Camp Humphries, the command will increase the number of command-sponsored tours to 14,000 families, which is how many of the 28,500 servicemembers assigned to Korea are married, Sharp said.

The command is using three sources of money: Korean, public-private ventures and U.S. military construction.

Sharp said the country is safe and that intelligence would allow officials to order a noncombatant evacuation if circumstances warranted it. He compared the situation to that in Germany during the 1980s, with American families living in the shadow of the fence between East and West Germany.

“The troops tell me they want to bring their families, and they want to be in Korea for more than a year, especially those who are there and who see the professional and personal opportunities,” he said.

South Korea is one of the richest countries in the world. The crime rate is low, and the facilities are good, Sharp said. And families are coming anyway, with many servicemembers paying to bring their families without command sponsorship. The latest figures show 1,600 families are living in Korea without command sponsorship.

“They are the ones who say, ‘I am not going to spend another year apart. We do that enough in Iraq and Afghanistan,’” Sharp said. These families receive a partial housing allowance and live on the economy. They receive medical care.

“The majority of servicemembers still think Korea is like ‘MASH,’” he said, referring to the television program set during the Korean War. “They think there are dirt roads in Korea. It’s not like that, and the word is starting to get out.”

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