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CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea — Suddenly, a tour in South Korea isn’t looking so bad.

Sgt. Joseph Dillard, sipping a soft drink in the Camp Casey food court, pondered that recently while reflecting on the relative comfort of his situation compared to his buddies also serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 37th Engineer Detachment soldier, who ends a yearlong tour next month, feels fortunate to have enjoyed comfortable barracks, Internet access and facilities such as the food court. But there’s another reason why he and others consider themselves lucky.

“I know several people who have extended so they don’t have to get deployed,” Dillard said. “People don’t want to go to Iraq. Over there, you are deployed for a year, you live in a tent and you don’t have any freedom.”

8th Army data suggests the phenomenon could be widespread.

Soldiers re-enlisting to remain in South Korea increased from 119 in fiscal 2001 to 318 during 2002 and 586 in 2003.

During fiscal 2003, 309 officers requested and obtained voluntary Foreign Service Tour Extensions of less than 12 months, while 146 officers requested and obtained In Place Consecutive Overseas Tours of 12 months or more.

Also in 2003, 1,541 enlisted soldiers requested and obtained voluntary FSTEs, while 2,242 were granted 12-month extensions and entitlements to Overseas Tour Extension Incentive Program benefits.

Area I Command Sgt. Maj. Jolanda Lomax conceded that soldiers avoiding deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan is a factor in South Korea’s newfound popularity.

“When you PCS to Korea, the possibility of being deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan within 90 days is slim to none,” she said. But soldiers know they can’t put off Iraq or Afghanistan tours indefinitely.

“No place is really safe,” Lomax added. “Look at all the demonstrations here. Eventually, you will have to leave Korea and pay whatever dues you have to pay. You can’t avoid it.

“The soldiers realize they have a commitment to the U.S. Army. They know they will eventually have to depart Korea and continue to serve their country in whatever capacity they are needed.”

The other major reason for South Korea’s increasing popularity is the improved quality of life for soldiers serving here, Lomax said.

“There have been drastic improvements for the soldiers’ living conditions in Korea since I was stationed here from 1995 to 1996,” she said. “You may hear complaints about space availability. They are going to complain about that, but the construction of the barracks they are living in is far better than it was prior to the 1998 floods in Area I.”

Quonset huts — hangar-like structures with restricted space because of curved walls and ceilings — have been replaced with modern comfortable barracks in recent years, Lomax said. On-base clubs and restaurants have been added to installations that once had few leisure options for off-duty soldiers.

“Mitchell’s [restaurant chain] wasn’t here [at Camp Red Cloud] in ’95. For any type of club entertainment, we had to travel to Camp Casey. There have been similar improvements at other Area I bases,” Lomax said.

Area I is a non-command-sponsored assignment, but there are services for spouses who accompany soldiers, including the Pear Blossom Cottages, which provide kitchen, laundry and other facilities, she said.

“There is a Christian school just off post at Uijongbu, where soldiers’ children can go to school with the children of civilian workers from the area. I have had several friends from Yongsan who have visited and are amazed at the family feeling they get from the soldiers here in Area I,” Lomax said.

“We don’t have the opportunity to live off post and we don’t have cars, but we don’t have the big city hustle and bustle they do in Seoul.”

2nd Infantry Division Retention Sgt. Maj. Marty Boyd oversees 20 career counselors who advise soldiers about re-enlisting or extending their Korea tours.

The Overseas Tour Extension Program, for example, encourages soldiers to stay in Korea an additional 12 months, offering four options, including an extra $80 a month, a $2,000 lump sum payment, 30 days extra leave, or 15 days extra leave and a round-trip ticket to the United States.

A total of 309 2nd ID soldiers — or 14 percent of 2,292 eligible — took one of those options in the last fiscal year, Boyd said.

Army officials say their goal is to get the command-sponsorship rate up to 25 percent of the peninsula’s assigned strength. But the fact South Korea is still a dependent-restricted tour can be a big turnoff, Boyd said.

“Once they get here, they love it because they get an opportunity to perform their duties,” she said.

So why bother with incentives?

“We would rather have soldiers who want to be here and soldiers who choose to stay here,” said Boyd, who estimates that 85-90 percent of soldiers in Korea are there voluntarily.

Boyd, who’s been in South Korea for seven months, opted for one of her own bonuses, collecting the $2,000 lump sum and extending her tour until June 2005. A single parent, she left her children with relatives in the United States and traded a 3,000-square-foot house for a single room in the barracks at Camp Mobile.

Boyd is happy with her decision.

“It is definitely not the weather or the living conditions. I’m not a cold-weather person,” she said, sitting in a heated office surrounded by snow. “I like the rapport you have with each other and the camaraderie shared by the soldiers. We become a big family because we have no outside distractions. It is all about soldiering. In the States, come close of business, everybody goes their separate ways.”

Others have more personal reasons for choosing South Korea.

Spc. Jason Smith, also with the 37th Engineer Detachment, recently extended his tour for the second time. For him, the motivation is a South Korean girlfriend.

“I’ve been here two years and four months. I get out in October, and I’ll be looking for a civilian job in South Korea,” he said.

Smith said it’s a much better place to live and work than two years ago.

“It has grown as a country, and they are building all the time. The Korean people are having more to do with the GIs. Some are protesting, but the others are happy we are here. You meet more good people than bad,” he said.

In fact, Korea seems to be getting so popular that some soldiers are being turned away.

Pvt. Brandon Tolstad of the 1st Battalion, 43rd Air Defense Artillery Regiment at Osan Air Base says he would even trade a pay bonus to remain here.

“I put in an FSTE to stay here, it was approved by my unit and my battalion, but was denied by the Department of the Army,” he wrote to Stars and Stripes. “My chain of command tells me that it is out of their hands. There are so many soldiers here that would like to go home, but the few that do put in for an extension get denied. I was thinking about asking them to let me stay and not giving me a bonus.”

Tolstad said he has orders to Fort Bliss, Texas, but would love to re-up for another tour in South Korea. The Army has other plans.

Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, an 8th Army spokesman, said there are numerous peninsula-wide initiatives aimed at making South Korea the assignment of choice.

Web pages have been developed to provide information to soldiers preparing for tours here.

Once soldiers arrive in South Korea, they can expect a pay boost over what they were earning in the United States.

“Save Pay, bonuses and COLA put dollars directly into the pockets of our servicemembers — $150 in Area I, $50 in Areas II-IV,” Boylan said.

And the Army has made reenlisting lucrative as well. The Targeted Selective Reenlistment Bonus rewards soldiers in 45 different skills who reenlist to extend their tour in Korea or reenlist in Conus to be reassigned to Korea. During fiscal 2003, 708 soldiers reenlisted for this bonus. This success has lead the Army to now look at expanding the number of skills that receive a bonus for soldiers who reenlist for an assignment to South Korea or if already there, extend their tour an additional six months. The Army hopes to announce this expansion shortly.

The Army is also helping smooth the process of returning home.

“In the past, soldiers returning from Korea would start at the bottom of the housing list and remain separated from family for additional time when arriving at new duty locations due to lack of quarters,” Boylan said.

“Korea has gained permission to add to the soldiers’ orders a statement giving them six months credit on the gaining housing list, which is very important for soldiers and their families returning to the States.”

The Home-based Advance Assignment Program allows servicemembers to lock in their next assignment after South Korea, he said.

Still, the equation is pretty simple for some: South Korea is not Iraq.

A one-year, unaccompanied tour to South Korea is a much better option than a one-year, unaccompanied tour to Iraq, where you’re likely to be dodging rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs, some soldiers say.

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