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SEOUL — Despite saying in January that he planned to ease the curfew for higher-ranking servicemembers within two months, soon-to-retire U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. B.B. Bell said Saturday he will not change the curfew, because U.S. troops in South Korea have a "wartime mission."

Bell said the 1-to-5 a.m. weekend curfew protects troops and helps them stay ready to fight. On weekdays, troops are required to stay indoors between midnight and 5 a.m.

"This curfew is hardly some kind of great infringement on the liberties of our servicemembers to go out and enjoy the great culture of this country," he said during an interview with Stars and Stripes, his last before he returns to the States next week to retire June 9. "It simply says there comes a point where you’re supposed to go to bed."

Bell said he made the decision three weeks ago, based on a unanimous recommendation from his five subordinate officers that he keep the curfew. Bell said he will recommend that incoming USFK commander Lt. Gen. Walter Sharp, who assumes command Tuesday, maintain the curfew.

Bell said some of his senior NCOs told him about a year ago that he should re-examine the policy, because troops were mature enough to police themselves and not put force protection at risk. After a "fairly extensive analysis," he held a commander’s conference to discuss the curfew. All five subordinate officers told him to keep the curfew as written, he said.

Bell said in January, during a visit to Daegu’s Camps Walker and Henry, that he was considering a tiered curfew system that would let higher-ranking soldiers stay out later. He said then that the current system doesn’t recognize that by the time servicemembers reach a certain rank, they’ve had to show maturity and responsibility.

"If soldiers are expected to be leaders, then why won’t I let them go out at night?" he said then. On Saturday, he said the curfew was reasonable.

"I would reject fundamentally that this is a hardship on the force, and it never has been. This is not an egregious curfew that somehow keeps people on our post 24 hours a day — far from it," he said. "It simply says for four or five hours a night, you ought to be asleep in your domicile."

He said recent high-profile arrests of U.S. troops in Japan and Okinawa didn’t influence his decision to keep the curfew, but threat of war from North Korea did.

"Without well-rested, well-heeled soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, you can’t guarantee they’re going to be ready to fight tonight, which is what we have to do with the North Koreans postured along the DMZ," he said. "It’s not a combat zone, but it can become one quickly."

Reaction was mixed from troops who spoke to Stripes about Bell’s decision.

"We’re adults, and we should be treated as such," said Sgt. William Shaffer, of B Company, 121st Combat Support Hospital. "There are those who need a curfew, but those of us who’ve been around a while, especially E-5s and above, have earned the extra responsibility. Leave it to our individual chains of command. Our first sergeants, first-line supervisors and commanders know who can handle that responsibility and who can’t."

Spc. Lorenzo Haas of 176th Finance Company, now on his second tour in South Korea, said he didn’t mind the curfew and was used to it.

"From my experience some soldiers get into trouble. I think it is a safety thing to have a curfew," he said.

Stars and Stripes reporter Jimmy Norris contributed to this report.

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