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European edition, Thursday, August 23, 2007

Active-duty soldiers now spending 15 months in combat zones aren’t the only ones serving extended tours these days.

Garrison commanders recently have been given the option to extend what was a 24-month tour to 36 months — and in considerably more hospitable areas.

All but one of the lieutenant colonels who last year took command of garrisons in U.S. Army Europe — and at least five of the seven garrison commanders who arrived so far this year — asked to stay on an extra year, said Kenneth White, a spokesman for the Installation Management Command — Europe.

Lt. Col. Jeffrey Fletcher, U.S. Army Garrison Mannheim, is among them. Fletcher, who took command in 2006, said he would be staying three years and expected the extra time and experience would help him accomplish the mission. He said he views his mission as providing soldiers and families with a good quality of life.

“The first year is a year with lots of learning,” Fletcher said. “Now, after a year, I can at least go into the second year with expectations and the ability to adapt.”

Garrison commanders at the lieutenant commander level have done a two-year tour since 1983, according to a 1990 report by the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. But last year, the Army decided to allow them a three-year tour. The extension is not automatic but it is expected to usually be granted.

The idea was based on the same option offered to colonels who commanded garrisons some years earlier. “We found that 85 percent were opting for a third year,” said Lt. Col. John Potts at the Army’s Human Resources Command. “And the Army realized that continuity was a good thing.”

The colonel program was so successful that it has been changed to a presumed three-year tour, although colonels have the option of leaving after two.

The majority of U.S. Army Europe’s 19 garrisons are commanded by lieutenant colonels, but several — Wiesbaden, Stuttgart and Heidelberg among them — are commanded by colonels.

What prompted the flexibility isn’t exactly clear. But the Army is focused on providing more “stability” in assignments, and, as Potts said, sees the value in continuity in rear detachments, especially during repeated deployments and in terms of sustaining relationships with surrounding communities.

Being a base commander often has been likened to being town mayor, and some garrison commanders thrive in the environment.

“The garrison mission is a tough one,” Fletcher said. “I think it’s a lot of fun. It’s challenging, and there are a lot of things you just can’t predict.”

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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