Bringing more families to Korea
July 29, 2008
Gen. B.B. Bell, former U.S. Forces Korea commander, doubled the Army's number of command-sponsored positions allowed for Soldiers who want to bring their families to Korea rather than face a long separation while serving on the peninsula. The current number of command-sponsored positions is 3,000, with the goal of making this option available to every servicemember regardless of rank.
"Our hope is that it will become a three-year assignment just like Germany or Italy," said Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Wizenreid, 8th U.S. Army's chief enlisted advisor. "Our hope is that Soldiers would get orders that say 'Bring your family.'"
Because of a historical lack of such family support programs as adequate housing, medical care, education and after-school activities, USFK has limited the number of command-sponsored slots peninsula-wide. Some areas, like Camp Casey and the rest of what is known as Area One in the north of the country, can't support any families. The few command-
sponsored families 2nd Inf. Div. has are at Yongsan, in Seoul.
But all of Area One and Yongsan are scheduled to close in 2012, and in preparation for more families and the U.S. move south, the Army is building new housing, schools, and childcare and recreation facilities at U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys, about an hour south of Seoul, which will be the center of all Army activity in Korea.
Both the child-development center and the school at Humphreys are rapidly expanding and offer the newest facilities in Korea. Right now, Humphreys' elementary school can accommodate 255 students; after adding 7th and 8th grade classes in 2009, it will be able to accommodate about 350, and new schools are planned. The new CDC is only partially full now and can accommodate about 300 children.
Humphreys also has a "Splish 'N Splash" water park with different water slides that as many as 500 people visit at once in the summer, and a miniature golf course. Many of the units will have their own, smaller gyms in addition to the "Super Gym," which, when completed, will be one of the largest in the Army, with more than 100,000 square feet.
Yongsan, although slated for closure, will have its schools' capacity increased by 500. The 121st Combat Support Hospital there has also recently been redone and expanded to provide as much medical support as possible to families, but sheer volume necessitates many referrals to Korean doctors via TRICARE.
Sgt. Delaina Lynn Fletcher, who married Spc. Lonnie Fletcher while in Korea and recently had a baby, said she's taken advantage of a number of classes in childbirth and parenting offered by Army Community Services in Seoul. The assignment, she said, is very family friendly. She and her husband don't have jobs that require a lot of time in the field, so they can focus on each other and their baby.
"In fact, the whole country is perfect for families," said Lt. Col. Thomas Whitaker, director of Yongsan's Good Neighbor Program.
"I have four daughters, and they have Korean friends," he said. "Seoul is one of the largest cities in the world, but when they go out with their friends, I don't need to worry. I know my kids are safe. People look out for children."
The lack of sponsorship hasn't stopped families from coming on their own. The 2nd Inf. Div. alone has about 900 noncommand-sponsored families. Many Soldiers may return from a deployment, be assigned to Korea for a year, only to return to the States and a unit that's about to deploy again. Many families don't want to spend that much time apart.
Like many spouses, Dyeisha Henry, a wife at Camp Casey, discovered that the 13-hour time difference and approximately 7,000 miles between Korea and the States was just too much. She recently joined her husband at their own expense.
"We were separated a year. They sent him over here, and it was hard moving back and forth," she said. "I'd just had a child. It's too far a distance to maintain a marriage and raise a child. I decided to pack up everything and move here."
Although leaders are concerned about the additional strain these families are placing on Army resources in Korea, especially in terms of medical support, they say they would never deny any Army family access to assistance, to morale, welfare and recreation programs, or to the post exchange or commissary.
"We're never going to do that," said Wizenreid. "My commander would never allow that to happen."
More command-sponsored slots, he said, will help the Army allocate more resources.
One thing noncommand-sponsored Soldiers and their families don't have access to is on-post housing, which is in short supply for accompanied Soldiers as well. Installation housing offices can help Soldiers find off-post housing. Soldiers' housing allowances are also based on where their families are located, so even noncommand-sponsored families in Korea receive the higher outside-the-continental-United States rate.
All new spouses at 2nd Inf. Div. installations are required to attend a newcomer's orientation at which they find out about available programs, including the Pear Blossom Cottage, unique to Area One.
Founded at Camp Casey in 1989, the cottage gives noncommand-sponsored spouses a place to relax and socialize and where their children can play. It even comes equipped with kitchen and laundry facilities.
"The cottage also allows non-American spouses to experience an American-style environment," said Denise James, Camp Red Cloud's morale, welfare and recreation director.
Because many of the spouses are either Korean or from a third country, Family Advocacy Program staffers offer classes at the cottage on visa applications, employment and managing finances in the States. Marriage, parenting and cooking classes are also offered at the Red Cloud location.
CRC cottage manager Natalia Levtchenko said she sees an average of 200 people a month. She holds baby showers, birthday parties and farewells for the wives who visit the cottage. There are also activities and outings that resonate well with spouses.
"You can come here and meet other Army wives and let the kids mingle with other American kids, and it's better than being stuck in the house all the time," Henry said. "It's a great opportunity. They have all types of trips that the wives and kids can go on during the day."
Some officials credit families like the Henrys with paving the way for more command-sponsored slots.
Soldiers are "pushing us to push change. It's really kind of exciting to watch," said Command Sgt. Maj. Brian Stall, the 2nd Inf. Div.'s senior enlisted advisor. Soldiers "can pat themselves on the back and know that by bringing family members over here they're helping to make things right for those who follow in their footsteps."
Those additional accompanied slots and family programs, Soldiers said, are a huge boost to morale.
(For more information on Korea, see the August issue of Soldiers magazine.)
"The military's pretty much about motivation, and if the Soldiers don't have good quality of life, it's going to be hard for leaders to motivate them to carry out the mission. But I think that with a better quality of life they'll feel a lot better about themselves. They'll feel a lot better about their units, and things will improve all around. It will show," said Spc. Lonnie Fletcher.