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SEOUL — What one U.S. commander described as a "big tsunami" of military families moving to South Korea has forced officials to consider new rules to determine which troops get command sponsorship.

In 2008, the military announced that it would allow more servicemembers to serve in South Korea on longer tours with their families. Since then, the number of command-sponsored troops has more than doubled, from 1,800 to 4,400. Officials say those families have maxed out infrastructure at bases around the peninsula, from schools to medical facilities and even parking spaces.

"We didn’t fully anticipate how popular this program would be," said 8th Army commander Lt. Gen. Joseph Fil. He said demand has exceeded capacity because of a large influx of families who moved to South Korea last summer.

In response, a task force composed of leaders from each service began meeting last week to discuss how command sponsorships are distributed and who gets priority for them, Fil said Friday.

The group is expected to begin issuing recommendations as early as next week for a system that is "fair, predictable, and above the table," said Fil, who leaves South Korea next week to serve as the U.S. Army Inspector General.

The number of families on a waiting list for the benefit has grown, tripling in the last four months to 875, according to U.S. Forces Korea. Families hoping for command sponsorships have to wait until another family leaves the peninsula, officials said.

“I acknowledge we have been unable to adequately forecast the actual time families will spend on the wait list, and that is the cause of much frustration,” USFK commander Gen. Walter Sharp said in a message posted Thursday evening on USFK’s website.

Servicemembers have traditionally been stationed in South Korea on one-year unaccompanied tours. Under the tour normalization policy, troops can serve there on two- and three-year tours with their families. For years, troops on unaccompanied tours have brought their families with them to South Korea without command sponsorship, meaning servicemembers are forced to pay out of their own pocket for things such as housing and, in some cases, medical care.

Approximately 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea. Under the policy, about half of those will eventually be given command sponsorships.

The number of command sponsored slots is tied to the expansion at U.S. Army Garrison-Humphreys, slated to become one of two hubs for the U.S. military on the peninsula later this decade. Approximately 17,000 troops will eventually be stationed at the base, which will include facilities and housing geared toward families.

Bases in and north of Seoul, including USFK’s flagship installation, U.S. Army Garrison-Yongsan, were originally scheduled to close in 2008, a target date that was later extended to 2012 because of construction delays at Humphreys. Sharp announced in March that the move could be delayed to 2015 or 2016. Fil said Friday that Humphreys should be at full capacity by 2016.

Officials have attributed the slow pace of construction at Humphreys to the scope of the $13 billion project and negotiations between the U.S. and South Korea over how much each country would contribute to the project.

Fil said the Humphreys expansion is the biggest U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project since the construction of the Panama Canal.

“You’re building a modern city from scratch,” he said, adding that having more military families in South Korea is a deterrent against future aggression by North Korea.

“Bringing families over here is a very visible demonstration to the North Koreans that we’re here to stay, and we’re serious about this alliance and we mean business,” he said.

rowlanda@pstripes.osd.mil

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