Area I commander Col. Forrest R. Newton outside his office at Camp Red Cloud earlier this month.

Area I commander Col. Forrest R. Newton outside his office at Camp Red Cloud earlier this month. (Seth Robson / S&S)

CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea — At 6 feet, 5 inches tall, new Area I commander Col. Forrest R. Newton cuts an imposing figure as he strides across the bases he presides over near Korea’s Demilitarized Zone.

In July, Newton took command of Area I Support Activity, an organization with a $100 million annual budget that manages 17 camps housing almost 16,000 military and civilian personnel in Gyeonggi Province.

The 54-year-old Detroit native will serve two years in his post at a time when Area I and the 2nd Infantry Division, which occupies the bases, are in a period of dramatic change.

The division recently completed a transformation process that included redeploying a brigade of several thousand troops, first to Iraq and then to the United States. Its remaining forces are being consolidated at bases in the South Korean cities of Uijeongbu and Dongducheon. Meanwhile, numerous Area I bases have closed in the past year or are in the process of closing, according to U.S. Forces Korea.

Newton talked to Stripes in his office at Camp Red Cloud about his plans for the next two years.

The son of a railroad welder first heard about South Korea from a South Korean marine captain when he was serving in the Vietnam War as an 18-year-old corporal. Newton still carries shrapnel in his leg, one of several wounds he sustained in the conflict.

After Vietnam and a stint as a civilian police officer in Michigan, he joined the Army as an officer and eventually commanded the 728th Military Police Battalion at Daegu, South Korea, from 1997 to 1999. During that posting to the peninsula, Newton said he got to know Area I well because his MPs often supported 2nd ID or trained in “Warrior Country.”

Managing the restationing of 2nd ID troops within his bases is one of Newton’s prime responsibilities. Facility closures have reduced the number of buildings maintained in Area I from 5,000 to 3,000, he said.

“We are restationing ourselves into two major enclaves in Dongducheon and Uijeongbu. That will provide a better quality of life and better training opportunities and it will also reduce costs,” he said.

The base realignment is a key concern of South Korean workers employed on U.S. bases. Newton said he didn’t have information about future cuts in the civilian workforce in Area I, but hundreds of base workers have already been forced to move or retire as part of the process.

“I have told my (South Korean) workers there are not going to be any secrets. They know which camps are closing and where. As we close or shut down those camps we have been good about giving enough notice that people have a chance to look around. We try to give them 180 days’ … notice,” Newton said.

The base realignment’s next phase will involve the return of six Western Corridor bases vacated by 2nd ID last year. The U.S. is scheduled to return the facilities to the South Korean government in December, Newton said.

Area I has yet to start planning for the scheduled move of 2nd ID south to Camp Humphreys in 2008.

“The difficulty with transformation is timing. I have a responsibility to the soldiers who are here in terms of providing them with the best barracks, education and entertainment we can provide while maintaining the facilities we have. We are not going to not provide them what they need and take care of them because of something that might happen down the road, [but] as we get closer to 2008 there will be a transformation that will occur,” he said.

One of the first things Newton did after arriving in South Korea was visit every Area I bar frequented by U.S. soldiers, he said.

There have been improvements made to bars near U.S. bases, Newton said. However, after he visited several “excellent” South Korean entertainment districts he believed the Army could do better than the existing entertainment troops find close to bases.

Area I will continue to be a good neighbor to South Koreans living and working near U.S. bases, Newton said.

Area I wants to offer more to South Koreans than just cultural events, Newton added.

“We are trying to help them do things to support the growth of their communities. When we say we are a good neighbor we would really like to mean it,” he said.

In Uijeongbu that meant accelerating a road-widening project in front of Camp Red Cloud. In Dongducheon it could mean the same thing in front of Camp Casey, said Newton, who is to meet city officials advocating a road-widening project and golf course development near the camp.

“The Koreans are clearly aware that the land [on U.S. bases] is becoming available and are developing plans,” he said.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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