Consolidation of bases will improve quality of life, says USFK commander
November 7, 2004
(First of two parts)
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — Consolidating and closing numerous U.S. installations in South Korea to better posture the U.S. fighting force will also be a boon for soldiers’ quality of life, the top U.S. commander in South Korea said this week.
In an interview with Stars and Stripes, U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Leon J. LaPorte praised the “comprehensive transformation effort” as an important cooperative venture by the United States and South Korea. And, more importantly for the average soldier, it’s one that will produce tangible benefits.
“There will be first-class fitness centers, better living conditions, dining facilities, recreational venues, because in a hundred camps and stations, it’s cost prohibitive for us to provide all of these facilities on all of these small camps and stations. You just can’t do it,” LaPorte said in an hour-long interview in his Yongsan Garrison office.
“So when you consolidate, you can. You can have the first-class bowling alley, you can have a first-class fitness center, because you don’t have to invest in multiple fitness centers. So that’s our intent to improve the living conditions and the working conditions.”
Instead of housing troops and units in 50-year-old buildings, the base reorganization will allow for new facilities. Under agreements with the South Korean government, the U.S. military will eventually relocate to major hubs in the Pyongtaek and Taegu areas, south of Seoul.
One agreement, signed Oct. 26 in Seoul, sets the Yongsan Garrison closure for 2008, with soldiers and civilians moving to an expanded Camp Humphreys.
“We’re looking at — because most of what would happen down in Camp Humphreys would be new construction — very little renovation. We’ll be able to design and build these things so they’ll be first-class,” LaPorte said.
“Many of the facilities we live in are old facilities that were — many of them were Japanese military back in the 1920s. The infrastructure deteriorated. The wiring, the plumbing, and all that type of stuff cannot support our modern equipment.”
Over coming years, the focus will be getting Humphreys ready for the move.
“Today, the area we’re looking at is rice paddies,” LaPorte said. “So we have to gain political agreement, gain funding, purchase the land, develop the land, design and build the facilities. So you see it’s going to take a little while, but we have an opportunity to have an impact on the lives of U.S. servicemembers and accompanied family members for 50 years in the future by doing it right over the next several years. And that’s our intent.”
The consolidation also could solve one of the soldiers' biggest complaints: ending one-year, unaccompanied tours to the peninsula.
“Well, we’re looking at that,” LaPorte said. “We’re looking at what is the appropriate mix of forces and assignment policies. Right now we are authorized 10 percent accompanied, but we only have eight percent, because we don’t have the facilities for all of the 10 percent. We’re looking at options that raise the percentage, but we have not come to final determination on that.”
If more accompanied tours were allowed, whether they are two-year or three-year assignments, other issues must be addressed. One of those, school crowding, came up earlier this year.
At the beginning of the school year, some 80 non-active duty families were put on a waiting list for schools at Camp Humphreys and Osan Air Base. With help from LaPorte, the situation was resolved and space was found. But as more families move to the Pyongtaek area, more space in schools will be needed.
“The Department of Defense schools are intimately involved in the planning,” LaPorte said. “That is one of the pivotal facilities … schools, child development centers, hospital facilities, housing … are all factors that have to be addressed in the equation and relative to vacating Yongsan and occupying the new hub areas. So we have a master plan that addresses all this, but it’s going to have to be synchronized. It’s a major undertaking.”
USFK also is reducing its presence in South Korea by 12,500 troops over the next three years. U.S. officials have repeatedly said those moves will be offset by high-tech advances.
“We can guarantee there’s going to be no security vacuum as a result of this transformation. The number of troops is not the correct metric. The correct metric is what capability do the forces have,” LaPorte said. “And the United States has invested and continues to invest billions and billions of dollars in enhancing capabilities.”
In fact, the Land Partnership Plan — the umbrella agreement for base closures — has been sped up. With the dispatch of 3,600 2nd Infantry Division troops to Iraq, several vacated bases originally scheduled for a 2011 return are being handed over at the end of this year.
“We were looking for a more aggressive program than the original LPP. The original LPP assumed a steady state end strength,” LaPorte said, noting more changes could be in store.
“We’re looking at it on a daily basis. And we will have to adjust. I’m certain that the plan that we developed won’t be implemented exactly the way it’s written and we’ll have to make some adjustments for a lot of factors to come in play.… We’ll make some adjustments. But I think the majority of the program and the plan will be implemented.”
The improvements are aimed at making South Korea an assignment people choose, instead of one they’re forced to take. Already, officials said, nearly 9,000 soldiers have signed up for the Assignment Incentive Pay (AIP) program, which grants them an extra $300 a month in return for extending their tours in South Korea.
“We work very hard on our facilities, upgrading our facilities, so the living and working conditions are appropriate with other areas that people can serve. I think over time these programs are going to pay great dividends and we’re seeing it already,” LaPorte said.
“The proof is in the pudding when you ask servicemembers to voluntarily extend and 25 percent of them do,” he said, referring to AIP. “That tells you that at least for 25 percent of them, they see the efforts of the command. Because you can always vote with your feet.”