Camp Humphreys may accept minor building flaws to speed expansion, commander says
By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 5, 2017
CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea — Camp Humphreys may accept buildings with minor flaws as planners face a new urgency to complete the long-delayed expansion of the Army garrison and future home of U.S. Forces Korea, the commander says.
Col. Scott Mueller, who assumed command of the garrison in June, stressed that no compromises will be made on “life, health or safety.” But he said cosmetic concerns and less serious problems may be fixed later as long as the facility is ready for use.
“Circumstances have changed now, where in the past they were just construction projects. There were delays that really wouldn’t have operational impact,” he told Stars and Stripes during an interview at his office on Tuesday. “But now we’re looking at it as, ‘Hey we’re moving. Let’s get these buildings done.’”
The relocation effort is gaining momentum amid a growing nuclear and missile threat from North Korea. Mueller said his No. 1 priority is military readiness and base defense, followed by family needs and customer service.
“We want to make sure we accept buildings that are good quality and that aren’t going to be an operations and maintenance budgeting issue down the way,” he said. “Maybe there are some things that aren’t perfect and we’ll have the contractor come back and refine, but we can get into the building and start using it, so that’s our approach.”
“It just seems like there’s an urgency now because we want to get the transformation done,” he said, stressing that the red line is that buildings must meet rigid U.S. health and safety standards.
“But if the grout in the bathroom isn’t perfect, I’m not going to keep people out of the facility,” he added.
Camp Humphreys, which began as a Japanese army airfield nearly a century ago, has seen its population more than double from last year to 26,000.
The $10.7 billion expansion — which the Army calls its biggest overseas construction project since the Panama Canal — has been frequently postponed since the United States and South Korea agreed in 2004 to move most U.S. forces to bases south of Seoul.
The move — originally set to take place in 2008 — was pushed back to 2012, then 2016 and 2017 due to construction and quality control issues. Lt. Gen. Thomas Vandal, 8th Army commander, recently said it would largely be finished by 2020.
On the move
A milestone occurred in July when the 8th Army moved its headquarters from the Army’s Yongsan Garrison in Seoul to a shiny new building across the street from Humphreys’ flight line.
The garrison, which will eventually house more than 46,000 people, also accepted the new USFK headquarters last week, meaning the building has been completed and passed an inspection.
The USFK public affairs office did not give a timeline for its relocation plans. “There are still some planning machinations that have to be sorted out and that process will be deliberated over the next few weeks,” spokeswoman Michelle Thomas said in an email.
A new and larger post exchange, meanwhile, will celebrate its grand opening on Nov. 20.
But much work remains to be done to meet the needs of the rapidly growing population. In all, 50 of some 140 projects have been turned over to the garrison, Mueller said. South Korea is providing most of the funding and labor.
Most of the pending projects are close to completion, but some still have to break ground, including a new pet care center and additional housing, he added.
The hospital, which has been plagued by significant construction and quality control issues, is expected to be turned over by November 2019, said Mueller, who was careful to leave room for further delays.
“It’s just a very complicated project,” he said. “There will probably be some items that the contractor needs to come back in to fix, but there won’t be anything that prevents it from being a safe, usable medical facility.”
The relocation of most U.S. soldiers and those who support them to the base, which is spread over some 3,500 acres near the port city of Pyeongtaek about 40 miles south of Seoul, puts them largely out of North Korean artillery range.
But it also means a major shift in the military posture on the divided peninsula by moving the bulk of forces here away from the front lines. The U.S. will maintain the 210th Field Artillery Brigade near the heavily fortified border along with training facilities.
Humphreys, meanwhile, will have a battle-simulation center, a water egress trainer for pilots, small-arms ranges and a tank and Bradley range that will use lasers instead of live fire to help soldiers maintain their skills.
“We have a lot of people come down especially from places like Yongsan, where Seoul is right outside your gate, while here you’re looking at rice paddies,” Mueller said. “I’m always asking ‘be patient with us, we’re growing.’”