Warrior Families Pioneer Transformation
January 21, 2010
- Command Sponsorship undergoes major expansion in South Korea.
- 2ID Commander working to make South Korea assignment of choice.
- New schools, housing, facilities among major changes in Korea.
Maj. "Wylie" Huffman didn't lobby for a job in Warrior Country. His branch decided for him and communicated the tidings the "old Army" way - unannounced and unsolicited permanent orders.
But surprisingly, the "old Korea" narrative didn't follow on the heels of the "old
Army" assignment. Rather than embark on the "all others" tour once synonymous with 2nd Infantry Division orders, Huffman almost immediately opted to make Korea a Family adventure.
"When I first talked to my wife about it, she assumed I'd be spending a year in Korea unaccompanied," the 38-year-old native of Pickerington, Ohio, recalled. "But after I discussed command sponsorship with her she got on board immediately."
A Korean-American classmate at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. first broached the subject. Research, discussion and planning followed. Command videos were played and web sites consulted. The more they learned, the more Huffman and his wife Lydia came to view Warrior Country as a Family opportunity.
During the course of their investigation, the Huffmans heard and carefully weighed the usual objections to Family life in Area I: the 2nd ID operations tempo is too high - "you spend more time in the field and exercises than you do at home;" units treat Soldiers like they're deployed; the infrastructure ranges from primitive to non-existent; the few Families in Korea fend for themselves in an alien culture that doesn't accommodate English speakers well; in short, "you're better off 'sucking up' the year and leaving the Family in a more accommodating place."
But the Huffmans rejected the conventional wisdom - and they're happy they did.
"I've been at places with a high optempo before, places with an even higher optempo than we have here," Wylie Huffman said. "We're certainly very busy here, particularly during the exercises; but having my Family here is incentive to manage my time well and be able to leave at 1700 or 1800 normal days. I think sometimes guys work insane hours because their Families aren't here and there's no reason to go home. How many of them really have to be at work at 2100 or 2200'"
Wylie Huffman's sponsor, Maj. Jesse Easter, and the Division plans shop, enthusiastically welcomed the couple and their two young children, integrating them into the 2nd ID Family and easing their anxieties about their life in Warrior County.
Nor did the notorious absence of "infrastructure" outside the friendly confines of Yongsan Garrison deter the motivated couple. The Huffmans settled in Yongju, strategically located between his current office at Camp Red Cloud and his next anticipated duty location at Camp Casey.
"We actually found housing within three or four days," Wylie Huffman recalled with a smile. "We stayed a few days at the Dragon (Hill Lodge in Yongsan) and the housing office put us up at a (bachelor officer quarters) for a few more, but it was much less painfull than I anticipated - I honestly expected more glitches and hiccups."
"The apartments are wonderful - they're very modern and spacious," Lydia Huffman said. "There are very nice playgrounds at all the complexes. All we heard before we came was that there were no places for the kids to play but they have awesome playgrounds. They have gyms. There's so much for kids to do over here it's incredible."
The local community, Wylie Huffman added, features ballet and tae kwon do institutions ideal for children and a variety of markets and other retail facilities. "We found we could sustain ourselves within a five-minute walk if we had to," he said succinctly.
Pioneers like Maj. John Shermer and his wife Maggie blazed the trail Families like the Huffmans followed. One of the first three command sponsored Families in Area I, perhaps even first depending on the calculation method - the Shermers demonstrate how efficiently an informed, decisive and experienced couple can navigate the shoals of Family life within the Division footprint.
"We have nothing to complain about," John Shermer, an Army gypsy raised in southwest Louisiana, said bluntly. "Things went very smoothly for us."
The Shermers' biggest obstacles confronted them at Fort Meade, Md. prior to their departure for Korea. Still unaccustomed to accommodating accompanied Korean tours, the transition agencies struggled with the Shermers' options and orders for a time. "No one knew how to handle us," he recalled. "The process was very new so they were unsure about a lot of things."
But ultimately the major, an experienced hand in administrative combat, routed the bureaucracy and obtained orders for an accompanied tour. The support of his organization, which includes other officers with Families, contributed to his success. "My sponsor did a good job," Shermer recalled. Given his rank, experience and a supportive organization, Shermer and his wife "had plenty of flexibility to work Family issues."
The Shermers offered a concise and poignant assessment of their living space. "It's fabulous," John Shermer said. "We love it."
"The apartments here are all really nice, even fancy," Maggie Shermer added. "I was very surprised just how nice the places were."
The Shermers even managed to make a virtue of the childcare environment - often cited as an imposing obstacle to Family life in Korea. "It's been a great experience," Maggie Shermer said of her daughter's enrollment in a Korean daycare facility. "She's learning Korean and seeing many of the aspects of Korea the people who stay on bases miss."
Junior Soldiers without the institutional knowledge or experience of field grade officers and senior noncommissioned officers more often experience the full spectrum of "hiccups."
Pfc. William Gasper's story read like a caricature of the "old Korea" narrative - until he reached Camp Red Cloud. "I thought I was going to Fort Carson, (Colo.)," recalled the young New Castle, Ind. native heading an even younger Family of five. "That was the plan all along. But at the end of (advanced individual training) I was the only one without orders. When I asked what was going on they told me my assignment had changed - I ended up on orders for Korea."
Gasper received orders for the classic "all others" tour without consultation let alone discussion of command sponsorship options. "They said I couldn't bring my Family," he said. "I was just a private, what could I do' I just went with it."
After completing the assignment, travel, administrative in-processing and integration process without any discussion of Family options, a personnel clerk at Camp Red Cloud finally broached the subject of command sponsorship. Informed of Gasper's Family situation and desire to complete his tour accompanied, company leaders and personnel clerks at Division headquarters helped the new Soldier through the process.
"Capt. (Chris) Choi and the platoon sergeant at the time were the ones who figured it out," Gasper recalled. "They helped me complete the paperwork and get it where it needed to go."
The administrative process posed challenges. "They managed to lose everything at Yongsan, so I had to start the whole process over again," he said. "It was pretty frustrating to find out months later nothing was done and I had to redo all the paperwork I already filed; and meanwhile (his wife and three young children) were sitting around in Indiana waiting, mad at me because it seemed like I wasn't doing anything. But once the orders were cut, everything went great. They were here so fast I was barely ready for them."
Notwithstanding the bureaucratic challenges, the determined Family arrived and thrived in Uijongbu thanks to its internal resilience and a supportive unit.
"The company, from my commander and first sergeant to the platoon sergeants and squad leader has been very supportive," he said. "They've been very flexible and understanding. They've even babysat the kids during when I had an appointment. I'm not afraid to ask for anything."
Now conducting a two-year tour with Division headquarters, the Gaspers give back to the organization and the Soldiers who helped reunite their Family. "We host a lot of gatherings, whether it's Thanksgiving or Christmas or just a weekend get-together," Gasper's wife Lauren said. "The Soldiers love being around the kids. It's hard for them because they miss their Families. That gives them something a bit closer to home."
"We like it," William Gasper said. "The kids won't remember it, but we get out and travel quite a bit. We enjoy ourselves."
"There have been a few times, especially when he's working very long hours, when I've thought 'was all this really worth it''" Lauren Gasper said. "But we've experienced some great things we never would've seen unless we came here. Besides, I love traveling so this was right up my alley."
Virtually every command sponsored Family member identifies with Lauren Gasper's ambivalence. Indeed, all recommend a realistic, sober and balanced assessment before submitting any extension paperwork. Independent, adventurous and flexible Families tend to succeed, but not without confronting and surmounting stiff challenges.
"Area I is not fully developed like the bases to the south," Wylie Huffman said. "This is still a challenging environment. It's not for everyone."
"I'm not sure they're completely ready," agreed Lauren Gasper. "At Yongsan, there are classes you can put your children in; there's a (child development center); the commissary and (post exchange) are much larger and sell everything Families need; there are playgrounds. They're trying, and things are getting better, but this isn't on a level with other places yet."
"It's hard to appreciate what 'limited resources' means until you're living it," Maggie Shermer added. "Medical appointments, especially for pregnant women and children, can be a huge challenge. I saw one mother making trips back and forth to Yongsan with five kids. So she was buying six tickets both ways for every appointment. That's a lot of money for a low-ranking Family."
The Department of Defense Education Activity school opening next year at Camp Casey, greeted enthusiastically by most parents in the Dongducheon area, provoked a more ambiguous response in other parts of Area I. Uijongbu-area parents happy with the private schools their children currently attend regret losing funding for their kids to continue their studies in those schools.
"Now instead of walking her to school in five minutes we'll have to put her on a bus for approaching an hour each way," John Shermer said. "We regret, and I think most of the Families here regret, having an option that was working well for them taken away. The Families who came here in the last year made life choices based on what the Army told us when we moved here. A lot of people chose housing based on the proximity of the schools, and they shouldn't be penalized."
Practicalities such as transportation and communication can likewise pose daunting, if not insurmountable, challenges. Driving in the densely developed and heavily congested Seoul metropolitan area and Uijongbu corridor is not for the faint of heart. The proliferation of highways, specialized lanes and exclusively Hangul signage add to the challenge. The language barrier impacts Families more dramatically than unaccompanied military personnel, who typically spend most of their time on U.S. bases, generally appreciate.
"You don't grasp the magnitude of the language thing until you're in it," John Shermer said tersely. "Stepping off the plane and finding yourself illiterate is a challenge."
"When we moved into our apartment, they would post signs and we had no idea what they were saying," Lydia Huffman recalled with a laugh. Hangul signs, she added, "said they were changing the security code for the building. We had no idea what the signs said, so we went home one day and couldn't get into the building."
Yet command sponsored Families tend to agree that a lot - ranging from command climate to facility development - is going right. And with operational deployments within U.S. Forces Command routinely separating Soldiers from wives, husbands and children for a year or more at a time, opportunities for stable Family life shouldn't be lightly discarded.
"I think we're going in the right direction," Wylie Huffman said. "This will provide Families some predictability and some stability in the future. The conflicts we're involved in aren't going away anytime soon, so I think it's particularly important to keep moving in the direction we're heading."
"It's a different paradigm - this isn't your daddy's Korea anymore," he continued. "And that's a good thing. As more people have positive experiences over here and they communicate that to their fellow Soldiers and friends throughout the Army I think more people will start coming with Families."
"It's been interesting to watch the culture change over the last year," John Shermer said. "The atmosphere at community events has changed dramatically. Take the Christmas Tree lighting, for instance. Attendance this year was much higher - there were kids crawling all over the place."
"The post continues to evolve," he added. "It'll be interesting to see how the base will look and how it will adapt to the greater numbers of Families."
"Korea gets a bad rap," he continued. "The perceptions of Korea come from the Korea of 20 or 30 years ago. That's just not the Korea of today."
The Area I infrastructure develops as more Families arrive. Institutions such as the Pear Blossom Cottage, which provides a kitchen, cooking equipment and laundry facilities as well as play places for children and valuable social opportunities, receives rave reviews from Warrior Families. PBCs support Families at Camp Casey, Camp Red Cloud and Camp Stanley.
"The PBC has been a Godsend," Maggie Shermer said. "The facilities there are very valuable and the information passed among the wives helps just as much. Sometimes I even feel sorry for the people at Yongsan who don't have a PBC."
"It's a shelter in a very strange land," John Shermer added with a smile.
"The PBC is wonderful," agreed Lydia Huffman. "I was very thankful to find a place like that. It's very helpful, especially for the mothers with children."
Perhaps most importantly, command sponsored Warriors and Families almost unanimously agree on the bottom line.
"Even with all the difficulties I don't regret coming here," Maggie Shermer said. "This is my eighth year as a military wife and this is my favorite assignment. It's fun to be part of a culture that's so unique and so different from ours.
"This has been incredibly rewarding," she added. "If you choose to see it as an adventure it becomes an adventure. If you choose to see it as a hardship it becomes a hardship."
"It's a great opportunity if you're willing to dive in, embrace the culture and allow yourself to be immersed in it," Lydia Huffman said. "If you're open-minded and willing to take on some cultural challenges it's a phenomenal experience. This will definitely be among the best experiences we've had in the military."
"I wouldn't trade bringing them here for anything," William Gasper said. "Even if it's only for a few minutes, at least I get to see the kids every day. Even if I knew we'd have to deal with all the same issues and go through everything all the over again, I'd do it - in a heartbeat."