By Jung Sung-ki
Most U.S. servicemembers in South Korea are negative about a potential troop rotation to Afghanistan or the Middle East, while they are supportive of longer, family-accompanied tours here.
The response comes after reports that the Pentagon is considering deploying its forces in South Korea to the Middle East on a temporary basis after the three-year, accompanied tour program is put in place in the coming years.
Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, also mentioned the option during his town hall-style meeting with his troops here Oct. 22.
Pundits interpreted the idea as a U.S. move to expand the "strategic flexibility" of its troops abroad, allowing them to be deployed in a flexible manner to respond to conflicts in other parts of the world.
U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) leaders have said the longer tours will help improve the quality of life for American servicemembers here and set the stage for a potential troop rotation program.
But many soldiers think differently.
"I think the general consensus is that longer tours in Korea are great, but soldiers should not be deployed from Korea because it places too much burden on families who have already suffered from multiple deployments," a U.S. servicemember in Daegu told The Korea Times on condition of anonymity. "Korea should be a place for previously-deployed soldiers to rest and enjoy the Korean culture."
A 21-year-old sergeant said, "Soldiers can come to Korea to rest, relax and bring their family, without having to worry about deployment. If you take that away from us, then you take away a big factor for most soldiers who request assignment to Korea."
He continued that far fewer soldiers will want to be assigned to Korea if they know they'll have to deploy from here.
It may cause "added headaches" for Korea in its diplomatic relations with Middle Eastern nations, he said, adding that South Korea might become a target because U.S. soldiers are deploying from here.
A 33-year-old Army captain criticized his leadership for being more concerned about "the need to rotate" than they are about what is good for soldiers and their families.
He said that allowing soldiers and their families to stay in Korea longer, up to six years, is actually more economical for the U.S. Army.
"If we allow soldiers to be stationed in America for six years, why not Korea, Germany, Italy, etc?" he said. "If it has a Department of Defense school there, there should be longer tours available. The Army would save so much money."
A 33-year-old staff sergeant said he thinks Iraq and Afghanistan will be one-year unaccompanied ones, with Korea an accompanied "normal" tour of two or three years without troop rotations.
Meanwhile, most respondents suggested that the USFK and the Korean government come up with measures to establish enough infrastructure, such as quality on- and off-post schools, for the forthcoming accompanied tour.
"The last time I took my children back to the States after a tour in Korea, the school told me that my children were behind in school and that they would need special tutoring to catch up. I wish there had been a quality school off-post for my children to attend," the staff sergeant said.
A 41-year-old wife of an American major lamented a lack of facilities for USFK and their family members here.
"There are already not enough USFK facilities to sufficiently take care of families. This includes a lack of quality housing, the lack of military medical facilities for families and a desperate deficiency of recreational activities."
High-ranking personnel of the USFK have a lot of work to do to make the U.S. military posts in South Korea "comfortable" for the soldiers and their families already here, said the military spouse.
The USFK has 28,500 personnel in Korea and plans to lengthen the tours of U.S. servicemembers here and have them live with their family members as part of "tour normalization" efforts.
USFK Commander Gen. Walter Sharp said earlier that his command would have half of its 28,500 members serve three-year accompanied tours, similar to those served by soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in Japan and Europe for decades.