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The U.S. military is considering reversing the decision made four years ago that personnel with orders to Bahrain must serve a year there without their families.

In September 2004, the military decided to make Bahrain an "unaccompanied" tour because of the threat of terror attacks. Now, citing improved regional security and base infrastructure, Navy leaders in the region support an overturning of the policy, officials said.

The policy places a strain on servicemembers’ work effectiveness by not only separating them from family but also giving them a "shelf life of four months," according to Cmdr. Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman with U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/5th Fleet, headquartered in Manama. She said that means by the time they’ve become acclimated to the mission when first arriving, it’s just about time for them to begin outproccessing.

In July, when Vice Adm. Bill Gortney took command of 5th Fleet, he voiced support of returning to two-year, accompanied tours, Campbell said in a phone interview. "He was chief of staff here when the policy changed in Bahrain, and he’s worked in Bahrain under both conditions," she said. "He’d like to bring back [accompanied tours] on his watch."

The decision, however, is not the Navy’s to make. A policy change must come from the Pentagon’s office for personnel and readiness, and no decision has been made, said spokeswoman Eileen Lainez. "We are exploring the options, and I will get back to you if/when we have something official to announce," she wrote in an e-mail.

During a visit to the region last week, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead said the military is heading in the direction of accompanied tours to Bahrain, according to a report in the Gulf News, a Bahraini commercial newspaper.

"We’re on the path of families returning to Bahrain, and I’m encouraged with the progress that we’ve made, and I think it’s going to make a huge difference," Roughead was quoted saying. "Clearly, all of us want to be with our families."

The Navy has spent about $240 million on improvements, sprucing up a recreation and shopping center called the Freedom Souq. That area includes a food court, fitness center, movie theater, laundry facilities, TV and gaming lounges, Internet Wi-Fi hotspots, a bank and a tour agency. The new Navy Exchange is twice as large as the old store.

While the base’s elementary and high school never closed, since they also cater to international, tuition-paying students, the student population was greatly diminished after U.S. military dependents were evacuated from Bahrain in the summer of 2004. The schools have since undergone special force-protection measures, Campbell said.

Currently, about 2,500 people serve in Bahrain, home to the Navy’s 5th Fleet, which oversees ships and submarines operating in the Middle East region. American warships have rotated in and out of the country’s ports for decades.

For about a year, 5th Fleet has a program in place to let families, including children, stay in Bahrain from up to a month to visit serviemembers during their tour, Campbell said.

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