Troops in Korea see benefit in bringing families
SEOUL — When Marine Staff Sgt. Jolene Bracken talks on the phone to her 1-year-old son, she feels like he barely knows her.
"I’m just a familiar voice that he hears on the phone or sees on the webcam," said Bracken, who has been stationed in South Korea since January on unaccompanied orders — meaning without her family. Her son and 4-year-old daughter live with her mother.
"My daughter begs me to come home every day," she said.
Bracken said a Department of Defense decision announced Thursday that will allow more troops to bring their families to South Korea and serve longer tours here is a "great idea," something she wishes she could have done.
"Everybody’s for it. It would provide a lot of continuity," she said. "If I was going to be staying in the military, I would definitely extend in Korea."
Servicemembers interviewed Thursday largely supported the idea of letting troops bring their families to South Korea. Some, however, questioned whether a longer accompanied tour was the right fit for everybody.
Army 1st Lt. Vannesa Cardenas of 1st Signal Brigade said she couldn’t imagine bringing a family to an assignment where the work tempo is so high.
"We work six days a week," she said. "It would be hard."
Others, however, said it would boost morale and allow troops to focus on their mission, instead of worrying about their families back home.
"For a long time, the one-year tour here has kind of been a burden on soldiers and families," said Maj. Mark Ayson, who is stationed at U.S. Army Garrison-Yongsan on a two-year tour with his wife and three young children. He was stationed in South Korea before without his family and said his outlook on that tour was different.
"You start counting your time when you get here" without your family, he said.
USFK plans to eventually allow 14,250 servicemembers — about half of its troop strength — to bring their families.
Donesia Glean lives in Seoul with her husband, who works at K-16 Air Base, and said letting soldiers take their families with them is vital.
"I see a lot of marriages fall apart because of the distance, especially the young marriages," she said.
Glean said many troops are faced with choosing their job or their family. A soldier in her husband’s company had been denied command sponsorship and, as a result, will leave the military, she said.
And being away from their families also contributes to discipline problems, she said.
"What do you think happens? You don’t have good soldiers. You have soldiers who go out and get drunk," she said.
Sgt. Jeffrey Grell arrived in South Korea alone a week ago, but his family soon will join him at U.S. Army Garrison-Humphreys, where he will be stationed with the 527th Military Intelligence Battalion. He spent a year apart from his wife when he was deployed to Iraq, and he said it helps to be able to go home to your family each day.
"I think it’s a great thing that they’re allowing soldiers to bring their family members," he said. "Especially in the military, you get a lot of support from your family, somebody to talk to after work. It’s hard for some of the others who don’t get to bring their families."
Army Maj. Gloria Johnson said she thought the change would most affect spouses.
"It’s a great assignment," said Johnson, who also has spent 17 months in Area I — north of Seoul — during her Army career.
"But you can get bored quick," she added.
Spouses and teenagers might find it hard to get part-time work, she said. And having schools and housing ready will be key.
"If the infrastructure can support it, then I think it’s great," said Johnson, who works with 1st Signal Brigade on Yongsan. "Otherwise, it’s going to be an issue."
Air Force Capt. Wanda Edwards, a nurse with the 51st Medical Group at Osan Air Base, said she thought longer tours will make a positive difference in continuity of performance and care.
Now, with the one-year tours, officers and airmen get to the point where they see results from their hard work, "and then you’re leaving again," she said as she waited for a bus at Yongsan Garrison.
Her colleague, Maj. Wendy Koehler, agreed. But she also said the longer tours could mean harder choices for families. Koehler is four months into a one-year tour at Osan, and she left her husband and teenage son in Anchorage, Alaska, for the assignment.
If she took the three-year route, her family would likely have to give up a second income.
Her family is getting ready to pay for college.
"I need my husband to work," she said.