The new 8th Fighter Wing commander knows what it’s like for his troops to be separated from their families: This is his fourth remote tour in a 20-year career that has taken him to Italy, Germany, Saudi Arabia and South Korea.

And it’s his first tour away from his 4-year-old son and 7-month-old daughter.

"I understand personally how it affects us when we’re away from our families," said Col. Bryan Bearden.

Virtually all airmen at Kunsan Air Base, where the wing is based, are serving one-year tours without their families.

"Airmen can see how emotional I get about being away from my family — we (commanders) understand."

Bearden is on his third tour in South Korea and his second at Kunsan. He served in Daegu in 1990, and was stationed at Kunsan as a captain in the 80th Fighter Squadron in 1993 and 1994.

The base has changed dramatically in the past 15 years, with better dorms and more amenities on base.

"At the time, we thought the quality of life was fantastic. We had a little theater and it seemed to be good enough," Bearden said. "Oh my goodness, nothing like what we have now."

Bearden is taking charge during a period of expansion at Kunsan.

The first of four new dorms opened last fall, and workers broke ground last month on a 528-person dorm. A new theater opened in February, and construction is under way on a new billeting facility.

Those amenities are important, especially during a time of budget cuts, he said.

"Anything that we can do, it pays benefits with retention," he said. "It’s always been my premise that if you take care of the airmen, they will take care of the mission."

He said the F-16 base’s mission hasn’t changed, although its partnership with the South Korean air force has grown stronger. American and South Korean pilots now both fly F-16s, and share a common pilot language, he said.

"They are incredibly professional aviators. There’s a lot we can learn from them," he said.

Kunsan’s newer-model F-16s mean "slightly different training challenges as far as airspace," he said. "My objective is to ensure that we can train in airspace with our [South Korean] partners and really solidify that right type of mission focus."

Bearden is a command pilot with more than 2,000 flying hours. Before coming to Kunsan, he was commander of the 43rd Maintenance Group at Pope Air Force Base, N.C.

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