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WASHINGTON — The top U.S. commander in South Korea on Wednesday proposed immediately doubling the number of troops on accompanied tours in that country, and eventually shifting most troops with families to three-year tours there.

In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Army Gen. B.B. Bell also said he plans, in the near future, to give accompanied tour status to troops with unauthorized spouses in South Korea.

Commanders know of about 2,000 spouses who have moved there at their own expense so they can be with their deployed servicemembers during their yearlong assignment, Bell said.

“I hold in great regard these young people who, in spite of our inability to take care of them fully, follow their servicemembers around the world so they can have a united family,” he said. “I’m optimistic I can make a change pretty quick to bring them in.”

Shifting from one-year to three-year tours will require a change in Defense Department regulations. Bell said he has spoken with Pentagon officials and will submit formal proposals in the near future.

The move would improve both troops’ morale and relations with South Korea, by making those American families a bigger part of the U.S. presence, he told the committee.

“With the true engagement strategy we could have with this ally, where families engage culturally, get to know each other, form lifelong friends, we [could] build the alliance one family at a time,” he said.

“Now, that’s all lost. My servicemembers are sitting in the barracks lonely, missing their families.”

Currently, fewer than 3,000 of the 29,000 U.S. servicemembers in South Korea are on multi-year accompanied tours; the rest are there on a one-year rotation. But officials estimate that more than 17,000 of them are married.

“We are needlessly separating our families from their servicemembers, who are already relentlessly rotating from bases in the United States and Europe to repeated combat tours,” he said.

Staff with U.S. Forces Korea could not provide further details on either the three-year shift or a timeline for changing the status of unauthorized spouses living in South Korea.

Those families already receive many base services — medical care and commissary access, for example — on a space-available basis.

Members of the committee were split over the plan, with several expressing concerns over the safety of families living within striking distance of North Korea. But others said the change was long overdue, and could cut military costs significantly by reducing troop movements.

Bell said that having more people will require infrastructure and facility improvements to accommodate the additional numbers, and said moving the entire force to three-year accompanied tours will have to be an incremental change.

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