General: Despite housing conditions, many in USFK taking bonus to stay
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — Thousands of soldiers have opted to extend their tour in South Korea by one or two years since extra pay was offered, even though the command has among the worst housing conditions in the Defense Department, U.S. Forces Korea’s top commander told Congress last week.
Only two and a half weeks into the new Assignment Incentive Program, 3,600 enlisted personnel and officers have chosen to take an extra $300 per month for extending their tour, Gen. Leon LaPorte told the House Appropriations Committee’s military construction subcommittee. The program, which began March 12 and runs through May 12 for soldiers already assigned to South Korea, is projected to save the Army $20 million in moving costs.
Sending 28,000 servicemembers to South Korea each year for one-year tours accounts for about 40 percent of the disruption caused by the transfer of Army personnel worldwide, LaPorte said. Extensions also save the Army money in moving costs: Each permanent-change-of-station move costs an average of $5,000, and the Army saves two PCS moves when a person extends, Army officials have said.
“Every soldier we can get to stay reduces turbulence and increases readiness,” the general said.
The AIP program marks one step to improve South Korea’s image as a place to serve, LaPorte said. But 10,000 of the 38,000 servicemembers here still live in substandard housing — a figure that will decrease by a third if the command gets the budget it’s requested for fiscal 2005, LaPorte told the congressional committee. Even though barracks construction remains the command’s top priority, he told the panel, “I’d estimate 7,000 to 8,000 servicemembers would be left in substandard housing.”
President Bush’s fiscal 2005 budget asks for about $114 million for USFK construction. It includes a $46 million, 117-unit family housing tower and a 156-person dormitory at Osan Air Base; two $18 million 144-person dormitories at Kunsan Air Base and a $12 million sewer system upgrade at Camp Humphreys.
In separate House Armed Services Committee testimony, though, LaPorte outlined a grim picture for the command’s current infrastructure. More than one-third of the USFK buildings are from 25 to 50 years old; a third of those are classified as temporary buildings.
“These substandard facilities pose force protection challenges because they lack sufficient … structural strength,” and often are too close to base walls and gates, “to withstand attack,” LaPorte said.
But the command’s overall thrust is master construction plans for Humphreys and Osan, he said. Those areas are pegged to absorb forces from Yongsan Garrison when a firm relocation agreement is reached with the South Korean government.
The U.S. and South Korean governments are in negotiations to consolidate forces and better organize the dozens of U.S. installations spread through the country. The two sides have agreed to move forces at Yongsan in Seoul southward by 2007 but negotiations have stalled over financing the move, officials have said.
LaPorte said discussions have been “candid and productive.”
“We look forward to concluding the necessary agreements promptly, providing the National Assembly ample time to consider and ratify them,” he said.
The South Korean government has purchased about 200 acres needed to expand Humphreys, LaPorte said. The purchase was financed by proceeds of a 2002 land plan in which South Korea sells land returned to it by the U.S. military, using the proceeds to fund further moves by the military. The plan is to reduce major U.S. installations from 41 to 23. The Ministry of National Defense also is working to buy land at Osan, LaPorte said.
The command’s goal has been to increase the number of command-sponsored families in South Korea, U.S. officials have said. LaPorte said he intends to increase family housing in Korea “to 5,000 units across the peninsula.” Currently, the military will pay to move to South Korea only about 1 in 10 families of personnel assigned here.
The command also is working toward a “build-to-lease” program. LaPorte said congressional approval would allow USFK to add 1,500 family housing units at Camp Humphreys by having South Korean companies build the units, which then would be rented by U.S. forces.
About 4,000 servicemembers and civilians live off-post throughout South Korea because of a lack of suitable on-base housing, according to USFK. LaPorte said a coordinated construction program under the Future Years Defense Plan should correct deficiencies by 2009. Existing facilities would be maintained aggressively, he said.
Lisa Burgess contributed to this story.