Marines weigh pluses, minuses of longer terms
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Marines and their families had mixed reviews Wednesday on plans to replace one-year unaccompanied tours with longer tours.
In general, base residents said the change to mandatory two- year or three-year tours will benefit servicemembers bringing families, but not single servicemembers.
“It’s a good change,” said Tomoko Nagata, an Okinawan who works for Torii Station’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation office and the spouse of a retired Marine officer.
“There’s a lot more available for families than when we first married in 1988,” she said. “There’s a lot happening on the bases, all kinds of events and activities, and the facilities are much, much better than 10 or so years ago.”
She thinks longer tours will also be better for Okinawan- American relationships
“With more families, there’ll be less crime,” she said, referring to antics of past incidents involving drunken single servicemembers. “Another plus is that families spend more money out in town, so it’ll be good for the economy.”
Okinawa Prefecture officials said they had not been informed of the policy change.
“We will refrain from making any comment until a formal announcement is made to the prefectural government through an official channel,” a spokesman said Wednesday.
But on bases, Marines were talking.
“I wish I had the chance to get an automatic two years here,” said Lance Cpl. Benjamin Flores of the Combat Visual Information Center at Camp Foster.
Flores said under the current system, Marines wishing to stay longer than a year have to apply for a tour extension, which is no guarantee of a longer tour.
Lance Cpl. Khristian Colon, 19, said he liked the idea of longer unaccompanied tours.
Most Marines who come to Okinawa on one-year tours extend, he said.
“I’m thinking about extending my tour to two years,” said Colon, who arrived at Camp Hansen in April on a one-year tour with an ordnance maintenance company.
“At first, up at Hansen, I felt isolated and didn’t go out much,” he said. “But after a three-month deployment to Australia, which was great, I’ve been at Camp Foster and have found out there’s a lot to do here.”
However, two-year tours might make it tougher for junior Marines who are required to have liberty buddies off-base and are prohibited from driving, he said.
Lance Cpl. Matt McPherson doesn’t like the change.
“Most people stay in four years, and by the time you finish your training, which can take a year, you only have three years left,” said McPherson of 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion at Camp Schwab. “If you’re here for two years, that doesn’t let you do much with your remaining time.”
Longer tours would stress the island’s resources, he added.
“As it is, people don’t have enough places to live,” he said. “You would be bringing more people to a place that’s already filled.”
The tour change has been in the works since Lt. Gen. Wallace C. Gregson — the former III Marine Expeditionary Force commanding general who is now Marine Forces Pacific commander — asked for a policy review in February.
The policy was changed to “create greater continuity and unit stability,” Marine officials said.
Marine Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee said the reduced turnover will “enhance our operational readiness and III MEF’s war-fighting capability.”
The change will be phased in over a five-year period beginning in April.
Senior officers O-5 and above and E-8 and E-9 enlisted personnel will be offered 36-month accompanied tours, but they can opt for a 24-month unaccompanied tour.
“As we implement the plan we’ll be taking a close eye on how it’s working,” said 1st Lt. Al Eskalis, a III MEF spokesman.
“One of our biggest focuses will be to keep a close eye on the infrastructure, to make sure we can accommodate any increase in the number of family members coming to Okinawa,” he said.
“This is nothing that’s going to happen overnight.”
The tour change is not expected to add more uniformed Marines to the 17,000 already stationed here, Eskalis said.
“The six and seven-month UDP [unit deployment program] will not be affected,” he said. “That’s about 29 percent of our forces on Okinawa.”
Of the remaining 71 percent of permanent personnel assigned to III MEF, about 75 percent are on Okinawa on 12-month unaccompanied assignments, he said.
Eskalis said he expects many with families will select the 36-month tour, swelling the number of servicemembers’ dependents here.
“We don’t know how many,” he said. “We’re not at that level yet, but we’ll be monitoring it closely.”
Eskalis said a number of Marines come to Okinawa with their families without official sponsorship.
He expects that number will be reduced.
“Currently, about 10 percent of the Marines and sailors on unaccompanied tours have brought family members,” he said, adding they live on the local economy without the benefits of accompanied-tour families.
“In many cases, it means they have to survive out of pocket,” he said.
The tour policy applies to Marines at Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station but does not apply to Camp Fuji-based Marines.
— Fred Zimmerman and Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.