CAMP CASEY, South Korea: Tour lengths for servicemembers assigned to South Korea and the Army’s deployment cycles were on the minds of Soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division’s 1st Heavy Brigade Combat Team when they met with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates here today.
After making prepared remarks to about 300 Soldiers at this post about 20 miles from Korea’s demilitarized zone, Gates opened the floor to questions.
One Soldier wanted to know if the standard tour length for unaccompanied servicemembers would be doubled to two years.
Gates replied that he approved the idea of “tour normalization” in South Korea a couple of years ago. “What we’re looking at is a two-year tour for single members of the service and three-year [tours] for families,” he said. “We’re proceeding with the first phase in terms of families.”
It’s a long-term process, the secretary explained, partly because greater numbers of command-sponsored families means more infrastructure is needed to support their needs.
“We think the circumstances are such … that this is a place where American families would be comfortable and would be safe,” he said, “and would make the service of our men and women in uniform more bearable for the families.”
Gen. Walter “Skip” Sharp, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, pointed out to Gates that the decision has begun to have an effect. Two years ago, about 1,600 U.S. military families were living in South Korea, a number that has reached more than 4,200.
“Even up here at 2nd Infantry Division, they have about 600 families that are command-sponsored right now,” Sharp said. “[We’re] making sure that we build the infrastructure in order to be able to have even more families come, to the point where we can eventually allow all families to come, to get to about 14,000 families [in South Korea].”
Another Soldier wanted to know what Gates thinks about Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr.’s desire to reduce combat deployments for Soldiers, which now are a year long, to nine months.
“One of the reasons that the Army has had 12-month tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, in contrast to [the other services], among other things, has just been the logistics,” Gates said. “Trying to move as many forces as the Army had in Iraq and Afghanistan on nine-month centers has just been beyond our capability.”
Gates said he believes Casey expects that as stress on the force comes down with drawdowns in Iraq and upon reaching the authorized strength in Afghanistan, the Army can go to one-year combat tours followed by two years at home stations, and then work from there toward a 1-to-3 ratio.
“And I know that it is his goal, once we’re not involved in these two wars simultaneously, to be able to get to nine-month deployments, which would obviously be a lot easier on troops and their families,” Gates said.
“But I won’t kid you,” he added. “I still think it’s a long ways away.”
Gates, who had begun his formal remarks by offering his thanks to the Soldiers for their service and to their families for supporting them, took time after the question-and-answer session to shake hands with each Soldier, pose for pictures with them, and present them with his commemorative coin.
The secretary later met with Defense Minister Kim Tae-young in the South Korean capital of Seoul, and tomorrow he’ll join Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Korea’s demilitarized zone. The two cabinet officers are visiting South Korea this week to participate in the first “Two-plus-Two Talks” between the long-time allies.