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ARLINGTON, Va. — The U.S. Marine Corps is eliminating its one-year unaccompanied tour option for Marines rotating to Okinawa and Iwakuni, and instead will offer Marines a choice of a two-year unaccompanied tour or the currently available three-year accompanied tour, officials said.

The transition will be phased in beginning next year and is expected to be done by 2008, said Maj. Douglas Powell, a Marine Corps spokesman.

“The decision [for the change] is based on several key factors. First, the quality of life on Okinawa for Marines and their families has dramatically improved over the last 16 years,” Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee said Tuesday in a press release.

“Second, the reduced turnover will enhance our operational readiness and III MEF’s war-fighting capability. We are committed to developing a common sense phase-in plan that will be sensitive to the welfare of Marines and their families,” he said.

Details as of Tuesday were not available since officials from Manpower and Reserve Affairs Department, which oversees the planning, directing, coordinating and supervising of active and reserve forces, have yet to finish crafting the plan, Powell said.

Next year, Marines will rotate to Okinawa and Iwakuni on all three options — 12-month and 24-month unaccompanied, and 36-month accompanied orders, though the criteria officials will use to decide who gets what has yet to be worked out, Powell said.

In 1987, the Marine Corps received a waiver from the Defense Department’s 24/36 rotation schedule policy to address shortcomings in quality-of-life issues at Okinawa, such as poor or unavailable recreational and educational facilities, housing and shopping.

The III Marine Expeditionary Force is the only Marine division-scale force stationed outside of the United States, with 17,000 Marines, and it accounts for about 60 percent of all U.S. servicemembers stationed on Okinawa.

About 70 percent of the Marine contingent on Okinawa is permanent personnel, those rotating there for either the present one-year or three-year tours, Powell said. The remaining 30 percent are Marines transitioning in the Unit Deployment Program, made up mostly of infantry and aviation elements, on a six-month deployments. The new rotation policy will not affect on the UDP deployment schedules, Powell said.

Nor will it affect Marines stationed at Camp Fuji, Japan, who will continue to rotate on 12-month unaccompanied or 36-month accompanied tours, he said.

While the plan change won’t increase the number of Marines rotating to Okinawa, it could increase the number of dependents going with them, potentially straining existing infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and housing, officials said.

The new plan also will not affect the Special Action Committee on Okinawa’s plan to reduce the U.S. military footprint on the island by 21 percent, officials said.

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