By Donna Miles, American Forces Press ServiceDecember 3, 2010
WASHINGTON -- The top U.S. commander in South Korea has introduced a new policy prioritizing what positions qualify for highly sought-after command sponsorships for family members.
Army Gen. Walter L. "Skip" Sharp, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, announced the new system this week to control the flow of command-sponsored military families to ensure infrastructure improvements underway are prepared to accommodate them, he explained in his "Sharp Point" blog.
The policy reflects the huge popularity of tour normalization in South Korea, said Air Force Lt. Col. Angela Billings, the command's deputy public affairs officer.
With full 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.
"We were overwhelmingly successful with our tour normalization efforts and had the wait list to show it," Billings said. "With over 900 on the wait list, the commander wanted a better, more transparent way for servicemembers and their families to make decisions affecting their lives."
The new policy is designed to reduce uncertainty for these families as the command works to expand command-sponsorship opportunities as quickly as possible, she said.
U.S. Forces Korea currently can accommodate just 4,600 families, but Sharp hopes to allow as many of the estimated 14,000 married troops currently in South Korea to bring their families as more housing, schools and other facilities become available. He promised in his blog message to pursue the funding and infrastructure initiatives needed to expand command sponsorships as quickly as possible.
"Because of the great quality of life and a desire for families to remain together at a time when many have been separated, more and more servicemembers want to come to Korea and more and more families want to accompany them," Sharp said in his command blog. "I appreciate your continued patience during this transition as we implement the revised [command-sponsorship program] policy on our way to full tour normalization in Korea."
"We simply had to take a more deliberate, graduated approach" to command sponsorships for the near term, Billings said. "The commander was clear. He didn't want to take on more than the infrastructure and facilities could manage in order to keep the quality of life for the families who are here at an acceptable level."
Under the new policy, top priority for command sponsorships will go to servicemembers assigned to key billets considered so vital to the mission that they mandate 24-month tours, regardless of whether the servicemembers bring their families, Sharp said.
U.S. Forces Korea established a new second-priority category for troops assigned to military jobs determined to provide commanders the greatest benefit when served in 24- and 36-month tours. These positions typically will be key leadership positions that require lengthy pre- or post-arrival training or certifications, or jobs involving low density and hard-to-fill skill sets, Sharp explained.
Unit commanders will recommend what positions qualify for "Priority 2" status, subject to component commander approval, and they will vary by service, location and unit, he said.
The new policy gives commanders flexibility in filling the remaining "Priority 3" positions. Factors likely to be considered are recent deployments, consecutive overseas tours, dual military or single military family status and junior servicemember opportunities, Sharp said.
He noted that Navy and Marine Corps command sponsorship opportunities are aligned to specific positions, which are centrally managed by their respective service centers and are based on available allocations by location.
Commanders in South Korea will conduct town hall meetings and commander's calls over the next 10 days to explain the revised policy, answer questions and provide detailed information about the three command-sponsorship priority categories, Sharp said.
In addition, he has directed the chain of command to contact all servicemembers already on a waiting list for command sponsorship to explain how the new policy affects them and options available to them and their families.
Since Sharp took command of U.S. Forces Korea in 2008, he has advocated longer tours to benefit U.S. military families, cut down on moves and reduce disruption within the command.
The vast majority of U.S. troops in South Korea historically have served one-year, unaccompanied tours, so the normalization policy is ushering in big changes.
Nowhere is evidence of those changes quite so striking as at Camp Humphreys, once a quiet aviation base off the beaten track from Pyongtaek. It's transforming into a major hub for U.S. forces in South Korea, almost all of them scheduled to move south of the Han River within the next several years, and an unprecedented number of military families.
Army Col. Joseph Moore, the garrison commander, predicted that the post could ultimately become home to as many as 30,000 family members, swelling the base's total population to more than 62,000.
Meanwhile, Camp Casey's new Casey Elementary School, just 20 miles south of the demilitarized zone, opened its doors for the new school year Aug. 30.
Sharp joined Clifford Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, in mid-September to cut the ribbon on the new school that accommodates 363 kindergarten through eighth-grade students, most of them children of 2nd Infantry Division Soldiers.
And because the school already is "bursting at the seams," Principal Shelly Kennedy is looking forward to an expansion next school year. That's when a second barracks building being renovated next door will be ready to accept about 250 more students.
"This reduces stress on the military," he told American Forces Press Service during a helicopter flight to the ribbon-cutting ceremony. "With families already separated by deployments, why have an unaccompanied tour if you don't have to'"
But Sharp said it also improves U.S. capability by reducing the turmoil of permanent-change-of-station moves, and that it underscores the enduring U.S. commitment to South Korea.
"To allow servicemembers to be here two and three years rather than just one year at a time has hugely increased capability," he told families at a luncheon before the ribbon-cutting ceremony. "It strengthens the alliance and sends a huge deterrent message to North Korea."