Air Force Lt. Gen. Edward Rice, U.S. Forces Japan commander, takes questions from Japanese reporters during a visit at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, on Friday.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Edward Rice, U.S. Forces Japan commander, takes questions from Japanese reporters during a visit at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, on Friday. (Natasha Lee / S&S)

KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — Despite delays and criticism from the Okinawa community, Air Force Lt. Gen. Edward Rice, U.S. Forces Japan commander, said plans to realign U.S. troops by 2014 are on target.

During a two-day trip to Okinawa, Rice toured Kadena Air Base, visited the site of a planned air station at Camp Schwab and met with military leaders to discuss the role of U.S. forces on Okinawa.

On the last leg of his visit Friday, Rice fielded questions from Japanese and military reporters about the realignment; the progress of the sexual assault task force formed to review prevention programs at U.S. bases; and military morale amidst deployments and strained relationships with the Okinawan community.

The realignment, which has been in the works since 1996, calls for the new air station and the reduction in U.S. forces on the island by relocating about 8,000 Marines and their families to Guam. The new air station will replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. Camps Kinser and Lester and part of Camp Foster also would be closed.

Environmentalists and local officials have disagreed over the location of the air station’s runways — planned to jut out into Oura Bay — citing noise issues and concern for marine life.

Rice acknowledged the concerns, but said Schwab’s coastal location is an ideal spot.

"The agreement we negotiated is still the right agreement. We didn’t make this agreement with the local government, but with the government in Tokyo," he said.

Rice took command of the USFJ in February, shortly after a series of high-profile sex crimes and alcohol-related incidents. U.S. military officials enforced base restrictions, followed by a curfew for active-duty servicemembers on Okinawa.

U.S. military and Japanese leaders recently announced the curfew — imposed in March — would remain in effect.

Rice said the crimes committed by servicemembers should not overshadow the military’s mission to defend and protect Okinawa and Japan as a whole.

"What’s most important at the local level to understand is that the very important role U.S. forces play be talked about and discussed in the right context. Not just in the context of those unacceptable incidents that reflect a small number of the military population," Rice said.

Rice said lifting the curfew — which restricts servicemembers to the base or their off-base housing between midnight and 5 a.m. — is the decision of the local commanders and leaders.

Brig. Gen. Brett T. Williams, 18th Wing commander of Kadena Air Base, said he recently adjusted curfew hours for airmen by an hour to make the restriction consistent with the one currently imposed on Marines and to reduce opportunities for misbehavior off-base.

Previously, airmen carrying blue liberty cards — issued to E-3s and below — were restricted to the base from 1 to 5 a.m., and higher-ranking silver liberty card carriers were allowed to remain off base during these hours.

Under the new order, put into effect June 9, curfew for blue liberty card carriers is midnight to 5 a.m. while silver card carriers can still remain off-base during these hours, but cannot consume alcohol or be in bars.

Rice said the sexual assault task force has been successful in its efforts to enhance prevention programs and sounded optimistic about the U.S. military’s future in Okinawa.

"I’ve been very positive and upbeat since I’ve been here. We got a lot of people out here doing the right thing for the right reasons," Rice said.

"I’m more convinced than ever that the DPRI initiatives (Defense Posture Realignment Initiative) are the right ones to underpin the realignment."

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