SEOUL — Bringing families to South Korea remains out of reach for most U.S. troops due to financial constraints preventing the military from expanding the popular tour normalization program.
Addressing what it called “current news reports,” U.S. Forces Korea issued a statement last week saying that “while improvements to readiness remain the command’s first priority, tour normalization is not affordable at this time.”
The military announced in 2008 it would gradually allow more troops to serve in South Korea on longer tours with their families, eventually making about half of the 28,500 billets command-sponsored. Servicemembers have traditionally served one-year unaccompanied tours here.
By 2010, the number of command-sponsored troops had more than doubled, from 1,800 to 4,400. However, officials said those families had maxed out infrastructure at bases, from schools to medical facilities to parking spaces, forcing the military to limit the number of slots available.
USFK commander Gen. James Thurman told Congress in March 2012 that the Department of Defense could not then afford tour normalization, and he was “content to remain at the currently authorized 4,645 command-sponsored families.” Ninety percent of those billets were filled as of Dec. 20, according to USFK.
The tour normalization policy was meant to improve readiness by reducing turnover, and is closely tied with expansion of Camp Humphreys, which will eventually serve as a hub for USFK after the closure of a number of bases in and north of Seoul. The relocation — initially scheduled for 2008, then delayed until 2012 — is now supposed to take place in 2016, though military officials have declined repeated requests to update the status of preparations for the move.
USFK’s statement, issued last Friday, said the military “is pursuing other options to help reduce personnel turnover and improve readiness.” Thurman told Congress in March that the military was studying whether individual tour length extensions and unit rotations could help address readiness issues, though USFK spokeswoman Jennifer Buschick said this week that no decisions have been made.
For years, troops on unaccompanied tours have brought their families to South Korea without command sponsorships, opting to pay for things such as family housing and sometimes medical care. The military previously considered the assignment too dangerous for families.
Former USFK commander Gen. Walter Sharp told Stars and Stripes in December 2008, when the new tour normalization policy was announced, that more command sponsorships could act as a deterrent for possible North Korean aggression.
“It says: ‘OK, we’re comfortable enough in our capabilities, we’re comfortable that we’re bringing families over here, and you better not miscalculate,” he said.
Stars and Stripes staffer Jon Rabiroff contributed to this story.