GARMISCH, Germany — The U.S. European Command will assemble a task force to look into the issue of gangs and gang prevention in the communities within the command’s area, officials said Thursday.

While no details were available Thursday, the announcement came during the wrap-up of the 2006 EUCOM Quality of Life Conference, which takes place annually and is meant to allow communities to bring their concerns to leadership.

“It’s something that is very urgent and something so easily addressed at the beginning,” Army Col. Paul Aswell, who heads the EUCOM committee that works to take conference issues to the next level, said after the meeting.

Like each quality-of-life issue analyzed at the conference, the idea for the gang task force came from conference focus groups and bull sessions from servicemembers and others throughout the command, he said.

“This was a very thoughtful and well-reasoned need, but nobody had thought of it like that before, to look at this as a theater,” he said.

Gang prevention and education will be researched by EUCOM staff, and the task force will go from there, Aswell said during the conference.

“We think that’s one that’s pretty easily addressed, and there’s enough interest at all levels,” he said.

U.S. Army Europe officials have said in recent weeks that there is not a gang problem in USAREUR. Upon hearing that EUCOM was planning on creating a task force related to gangs, USAREUR spokeswoman Lt. Col. Elizabeth Hibner said she wasn’t at the conference and doesn’t know what was said. Hibner said Thursday that USAREUR stood by their statement that there is not a gang problem within the Army’s ranks in Europe.

“EUCOM creating a task force is different,” she said. “We need to look at what initiated that.”

Military police at Vilseck have questioned and photographed alleged gang members in the 2nd Cavalry (Stryker) Regiment as part of a probe into a string of violent incidents since the unit arrived over the summer.

Scott Barfield — a former MP and DOD investigator of gangs, and now a civilian police officer near Fort Lewis, Wash. — said in an interview that Vilseck MPs contacted him several times seeking information about gang members after the soldiers arrived in Germany.

Col. John RisCassi, 2nd Cav commander, has not responded to several requests for an interview since the unit arrived in Germany from Fort Lewis in May. Nor did he respond to questions this week about possible gang members in the unit.

However, Barfield said he’d sent to MPs photographs of Fort Lewis gang members and helped them identify 2nd Cav soldiers’ gang allegiances based on photographs of their tattoos. The MP at Vilseck working with Barfield also declined an interview request.

Gen. David McKiernan, commander of USAREUR, said Thursday that the gang problem in the military is proportional to the gang problem in American society in general.

“There’s always potential,” he said in response to questions posed by a Stars and Stripes reporter. “It’s something we constantly have to be aware of.”

He also said that in his year as commander, there have not been any gang-related incidents.

There are also more pressing concerns in USAREUR, he said, with so many soldiers returning from stressful combat deployments.

“What I’m more worried about is when young soldiers return, there’s a window of high risk, where they’ve been exposed to danger and now they have the opportunity to drive again, to drink,” he said.

Both the Vilseck mayor and Amberg police spokesman Hans-Peter Klinger said U.S. authorities have not discussed possible gang involvement in off-post incidents with local police. The incidents have included destroying property and assault.

Reporters Nancy Montgomery and Seth Robson contributed to this story.

Related Stripes storiesDec. 9, 2006:Need to belong seen as factor in pushing some servicemembers to join gangsDec. 8, 2006:Affiliation with a gang isn't a crime under military lawDec. 7, 2006:Army says gangs not a threat to communityDec. 7, 2006:FBI says U.S. criminal gangs are using military to spread their reachDec. 7, 2006:Chicago gang's influence seen spreading globallyOct. 1, 2006:DODDS-Pacific blocking gangs from taking rootOct. 1, 2006:DODDS schools worldwide told to watch for violent MS-13Sep. 27, 2006:DODEA warns gang could come to Europe

Other hot topics

Other issues that will be given extra weight and analyzed after the European Command quality-of-life conference include a personal belongings weight allowance change which would be based more on family size for servicemembers who are moving to a different duty station.

The committee in charge of steering the conference’s recommendations into policy or policy change also will place priority on giving servicemembers an annual chance to review their G.I. Bill benefits, instead of only when they first enlist.

The availability of urgent care medical appointments, mental health resources and the fact that many EUCOM members have to pay all of their dental costs up front on the economy also will be looked at.

Some of the issues raised during the conference already are being assessed by leadership, said Gen. William Ward, EUCOM’s deputy commander.

“The whole Tricare dental thing, that’s moving fast,” Ward said.

— Geoff Ziezulewicz

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