TROOPS stationed in South Korea-from the top general officer to the newest privates-call the new tour normalization policy a huge boost for military Families, particularly when they're so often separated during combat deployments.
General Walter "Skip" Sharp took command of U.S. Forces Korea last year advocating longer tours to benefit U.S. military Families, cut down on moves and reduce disruption within the command.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates approved the proposal in December, and it's being phased in as facilities are built to accommodate more command-sponsored Families.
With tour normalization, assignments to South Korea will be more like assignments to Germany, Japan or other overseas installations. Single servicemembers typically will serve two-year tours, and troops who bring their Families will stay for three years.
The new policy will usher in big changes. The vast majority of the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea currently serve one-year, unaccompanied tours. But that's already starting to change.
"Since June of 2008, the number of Families on the peninsula has increased from about 1,600 to...about 3,900 Families," Sharp said in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C.
Over the next year, that number will increase to almost 5,000, Sharp said during a March interview with the Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service. Ultimately, Sharp said, the number of command-sponsored tours in South Korea is expected to reach about 14,000, since about half of U.S. servicemembers assigned there are married.
Sharp cited the personal and operational benefits of tour normalization during his congressional testimony.
"By keeping trained military people in Korea for normal tour lengths, we retain institutional knowledge and create a more capable force, and are better able to support the alliance and deter aggression and also demonstrate our commitment to Northeast Asia," he said. "At the same time, we are eliminating unneeded unaccompanied tours and building the strong Families that are key to retention and effectiveness in this time of ongoing conflict."
In the interview after his testimony, Sharp noted that eight years of war have kept servicemembers away from their Families in large numbers. "We have enough unaccompanied tours in the world today, with Iraq and Afghanistan," he said, adding that aside from the need for infrastructure to accommodate more Families, unaccompanied tours in South Korea no longer are necessary.
"The only reason we (have unaccompanied tours) today is that we haven't built the infrastructure yet in order to have the schools, the medical facilities and the housing to bring the Families," he said
Most of the arriving Families will be based at U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys, where a massive construction project is under way to provide the infrastructure needed to support them.
Staff Sgt. Ronald Helm, who has served three combat deployments, said he welcomes knowing that troops will be stabilized in South Korea for tours of two or three years. Helm arrived at Humphreys as a single Soldier, and remembers living in an old barracks building until he got married and moved with his wife, Maria, into Family housing. Three years later, as he prepares to leave, he's impressed by the changes he has watched take place around him.
"I like what I see. They're tearing down a lot," he said. "I'd like to come back when it's all complete to see what it looks like."
Staff Sgt. Brian Nagle, an air traffic controller at the Humphreys airfield, has a bird's-eye view of the transformation taking place.
"It's in full swing," he said, looking out at the construction from the air traffic control tower. "At any given time, you can see in excess of 100 trucks that are moving on and off the construction area."
Among the most impressive developments he has watched was seeing a high-rise barracks building go up from its foundation.
"It's really kind of cool to know that that's the beginning of what is going to be in three or four years," Nagle said.
But even better, Nagle said, is knowing that troops assigned to South Korea will serve longer tours without having to leave their Families behind. "With the hardships of deployments going in so many other facets of the world, it's nice to know that you can come here and not have that," he said.
"But it's also a benefit on the Army side, because you get to keep people here for a greater amount of time," he added. "That's especially important in lines of work like ours, where you go through an eight-month training program, then have only three or four months to use it before you leave."
Families already in South Korea rave about tour normalization, knowing that along with new infrastructure, it will bring more Families and more services and Family-friendly amenities to support them.
"I think it's a great idea," said Kiya Reid, a former Navy Sailor who arrived at Humphreys five months ago with her husband, 2nd Lt. Jonathan Reid. "It's really good that servicemembers can bring their spouse and kids, because that's one less duty station where they have to be away from their Families."
Reid said there's an added benefit of longer, accompanied tours. "It's an opportunity for (Families) to spend some time here, get out to see things and learn more about the culture," she said.
"There's so much going on here, if people will just take advantage of it," said Billy Black, whose husband has been the civilian assistant fire chief at Humphreys for the past two years. She said she's excited about growth in Family programs at the post, especially those geared for children. The post Girl Scout troop has quadrupled in size during the past year, for example, and more sports teams have come on line as more Families arrive.
Black said she's delighted at the wealth of additional services available as the new, larger U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys takes shape. "I hope I'm here, or get to come back and see it when it's all finished," she said. "It's going to be fantastic."
But as they look forward to the changes to come, troops and Family members at Humphreys warned those headed their way not to expect too much too quickly.
"People are very excited about bringing their Families over here to Korea, and all the new things that are coming here," said Nagle, whose wife joined him after he arrived. "And when it's complete, it is going to be amazing. It is going to rival anything that any other Army base has, worldwide. But at the same time, people need to realize that this is work in progress. And as it develops, it is only going to get better."
Donna Miles writes for the American Forces Press Service, Defense Media Activity. This story was originally published at Defense.gov.