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YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — The Army’s planned expansion from 33 to 43 brigades should be a point of relief for soldiers, the top-enlisted soldier said Friday.

The recent go-ahead from Congress to increase minimum strength from 482,400 soldiers by 30,000 should “take the pressure off” the rest of the service, said Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth Preston, a 29-year veteran making his first visit to South Korea. He spent Friday answering questions from soldiers on American Forces Network radio.

“We’re going to grow the Army by 10 brigades,” said Preston, who took over the top-enlisted job in January.

That increase should be completed by the end of fiscal year 2006, he added. The number of soldiers in the Army now — 495,000 — is actually greater than the congressional minimum, and that should increase to 512,000.

About 170,000 Army soldiers are deployed on one-year tours to Afghanistan, Iraq and South Korea, Preston said.

“We are an Army at war supporting a nation at war,” Preston said.

And the Army also is reorganizing military occupational specialties to get more skilled soldiers in critical areas, such as special operations, psychological operations, military police and civil affairs, Preston said. Those changes — called balancing the force — will take place over the next two years.

Preston, previously a tanker and scout, left Iraq in December. When asked about the morale there, he replied, “it’s a war zone, but the soldiers are very, very focused. They are well-trained. They are well-equipped.”

As far as South Korea, about 6,000 soldiers have taken advantage of Assignment Incentive Program that gives soldiers an extra $300 per month for extending in South Korea, Preston said. The program has been so successful that the Air Force is considering adopting a similar program in May, Preston said.

The program also saves the Army money, Preston said.

Each permanent-change-of-station move costs an average of $5,000, and the Army saves two PCS moves when a person extends, Army officials have said. The program is projected to save the Army $20 million in South Korea.

Recruitment and retention remains fairly strong, Preston said. Some servicemembers are not going in the Reserves when they leave the service, causing some shortfalls, he said. But National Guard units are at 139 percent retention for the fiscal year to date, Preston said. Recruitment goals are being met, and the Army is setting higher goals, Preston said.

Recruitment and retention are “areas that [concern] me a lot,” Preston said. “We watch that very, very close.”

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