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CAMP COURTNEY, Okinawa — Marine Lt. Gen. Wallace C. Gregson says Okinawa will continue to be an important key to Asia’s security and stability for some time to come.

During a Wednesday news conference just before he handed over command of all Marines in Japan to newly promoted Lt. Gen. Robert R. Blackman Jr., Gregson dismissed press reports that the Marines are looking at alternatives to their Okinawa bases.

In response to a question concerning a recent Los Angeles Times report that the Marines were considering a move to Australia, Gregson said Okinawa is too important to regional security.

“We are firmly committed to reducing and consolidating our footprint here on Okinawa,” said Gregson, set to become the commanding officer of Marine Forces Pacific in Hawaii next month. “And we are continuing to extend our involvement with other countries.”

But the increased exercises and training operations in other Asian countries won’t result in a departure from Okinawa, he said.

“We still have the last remaining part of the Cold War here in this region — the division of North and South Korea,” he said. “And the hostile actions of North Korea have become a great concern.

“In my view, the single most important contribution to peace, security and stability in the region is the U.S.-Japan alliance. And quite simply, there is no other place so close to so many important places as Okinawa.”

He noted that the island is within hours of all the major hot spots in Asia.

Gregson said the biggest challenge during his two-year tenure as commander of the 3 Marine Expeditionary Force and Marine Corps Forces Japan was responding to the region’s security needs following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States and the terrorist bombing in Bali late last year.

“As the number of our friends and allies throughout the region became concerned with increasing their security measures in the wake of the terrorist incidents, we were challenged to expand our involvement with those countries at the same time as the United States and other countries were making an effort in the (Persian) Gulf,” he said.

Gregson said he was leaving Okinawa with “many fond memories.”

“This has been the most rewarding experience of my career,” said the 35-year Marine veteran. “The Okinawan people are warm, friendly and gracious. No community in the entire Asian region has done more for the peace, security and the stability of our two countries and the region than Okinawa.”

He said his “deepest satisfaction” came from establishing a Special Olympics involving the military and local community and volunteer English programs in area schools.

“I am also happy to have been able to open our base to Japanese college students wishing to pursue higher education,” he added.

Gregson was pleased to pass the command to an “old friend.”

“He’s a proven combat leader,” Gregson said.

Blackman comes to Okinawa from the Gulf, where he was chief of staff for the Coalition Forces Land Component in Kuwait and Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He’s been assigned to Okinawa twice before, the first time as a new second lieutenant 32 years ago.

“I look forward to building on [Gregson’s] many accomplishments,” he said. “And I also look forward to building a relationship with the gracious Okinawan people.”

Blackman now commands about 26,000 Marines and sailors stationed in Japan.

Prior to the ceremony, Gregson received an award from Takeyuki Awa, chief director of the Labor Management organization for U.S. Forces Japan employees.

“We are grateful to your profound understanding and support for our organization,” said Awa, who presented Gregson with a letter of appreciation.

According to Japanese officials, 25,114 Japanese are employed on U.S. bases in Japan — 8,778 of them on Okinawa.

— Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.

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