'The move is happening'
YONGSAN GARRISON -- It's always good to know someone cares and is listening. For U.S. Soldiers, civilians and family members serving in Korea, one of those people is the Hon. Katherine Hammack, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy and Environment.
Appointed in 2009, Hammack is responsible for all U.S. Army installations worldwide. And with the largest U.S. military construction project currently underway in Korea, she has a deep interest in its overall development.
"This is a multi-year project, a very complex construction plan," Hammack explained. "The
situation of our threat environment has changed since this was originally envisioned back in the
early 2000's...So as we are in a changing environment we need to ensure we are adaptable to change."
The assistant secretary toured U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan and K-16 Air Base on Aug. 21 -- Her second visit to the Korean Peninsula since March 2014. Her previous sojourn focused on the progress of housing construction and other transformation projects on Camp Humphreys. However, this time she dedicated some time to review Area II's transition preparedness and installation sustainment plan beyond the initial relocation of personnel and resources.
During the tour, Commander U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan Col. Maria P. Eoff, explained the community dynamics, the command strategy and the timeline of numerous Yongsan site closures.
"We are honored that you are here with us to learn more about our progress and challenges," Eoff said. "Our garrison team is committed to maintaining our customer support to the community during this transition, and we want to ensure the success of the plan."
The plan includes returning much of the current garrison land to the Korean government, while maintaining a portion for the development of new U.S. Embassy housing and support services.
There has been some delay in the initial expected turnover schedule, but Hammack said that is typical for a project of this size and impact.
"Some of it has been due to reconfiguring our footprint on Yongsan; some of it has been challenges encountered during construction that have slowed things; and some has to do with the Republic of Korea being ready for us to move while they take on more responsibility," Hammack explained. "So in that changing and dynamic environment, the installation community needs to have some degree of flexibility."
That resilience involves the gradual decrease of various services over the next three years, including Department of Defense Schools and on-post shopping facilities.
"I want to understand everything, so that when I return to Washington, D.C. I can help represent the needs here," Hammack said.
That desire to better understand the needs of the entire Area II community included touring an enduring installation nearby.
"It was great to get to K-16 and learn more about their mission. I had never been there before," Hammack said. "They are in the unique situation of being one of the few locations to experience little to no change (during this transformation in Korea). So they can address some of the longer-term challenges related to the resiliency and making investments in buildings so they will last for another 20 years."
She elaborated by explaining the different plans for Yongsan and K-16.
"The challenge that Yongsan has, and will continue to have, is we want our Soldiers to work and live in environments that are productive and healthy," Hammack said. "But from a financial standpoint, we can't afford to make 20 year investments in a structure that we only need for two to three years. So it's a very difficult analysis the garrison needs to do, to ensure that we can continue the mission here (at Yongsan) for the near term, yet be prudent stewards of the resources available for the long-term."
Hammack said that Yongsan is privileged to be in a great location in the capital city of Seoul. But that is also something looked on by the ROK as an opportunity for future development.
"When you're in an urban and dense environment like Seoul, green spaces and a connection with nature is something we all need," Hammack said. "I like the strategy I heard about some of the open areas being used as public parks. But regardless, there are plans for this area, so the earlier we are able to move off the land, I think it will better the whole community."
She clarified that the land transfer must continue to be carefully planned and implemented.
"We need to ensure that we understand what we need to keep, and why we need to keep it, so that we can affect appropriate transfer in a timely manner."
Consideration for the entire Area II community included a private lunch meeting at the K-16 dining facility with approximately 12 single parent Soldiers, to answer their questions and discuss their concerns.
"Soldiers are the backbone of the Army," Hammack said. "They are our foundation.
When she visits an installation she spends time with Soldiers, learning about the challenges they are facing and the personal rewards they are receiving while serving in the Army.
"Single parent Soldiers are a growing demographic in the U.S. Army, and our diversity takes many shapes and forms. We have some fantastic female Soldiers who are single parents, so as an Army we need to ensure we are providing them with an environment in which they can be both a good parent and a good Soldier."
She said that listening to their ideas, suggestions and concerns is very important.
"We take those back to discuss with the Sergeant Major of the Army and other leaders to identify ways that we can ensure we are serving our entire Soldier population with quality programs," Hammack said.
When asked about her discussion with the group of Area II Soldiers, she replied, "I didn't hear anything I haven't heard before, which is a good sign that there are some fundamentals that can be improved."
One of those basic issues involves the hours a Soldier works, versus the hours a child development center is open, and how to balance that.
"We don't want a Soldier to leave their child at home because work calls and there is no back-up child care, or stay late with additional duty beyond the time a CDC closes," Hammack said. "One of the nuances in Korea is many Soldiers are unaccompanied, leaving their children in the United States with a guardian but still needing quality child care for them while the guardian is working, etc... That was a very interesting conversation."
The group also discussed the B.O.S.S. program (Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers) and how some garrisons have new groups called "B.O.S.S.P." (Better Opportunities for Single Soldier Parents).
"We've seen some great BOSSP programs stand up around the United States that help single Soldiers connect with each other, become each other's support group, and get an opportunity to have a little fun," Hammack said. "That provides them with an environment where they can relax with their children, and there might be child care offered so the Soldiers can do an activity."
Hammack added that single parents have the same needs, wants and desires to get integrated with the community and social events (as any other Soldier does) but their priority will always remain being a parent. She also discussed the issues of the increasing trend of when a grandparent becomes a dependent, and how some of the Army's programs can address those situations.
The Army leader said she learned many things from her visit to Yongsan and K-16.
"What I saw today was some great planning and coordination, and I think there is a recognition that you need a focused team to help in the transformation that is occurring," she said. "At one time, there was a thought that the garrisons could do this on their own. But there is a recognition now that the command teams need to be focused on running the garrison and supporting the current mission, while the transformation team looks at refining the plan."
She said she is grateful to be able to spend time to understand how that is working, what is being done (here), and the garrison's challenges and concerns -- All of which have solutions.
"The message I will be taking back to D.C. is that things are underway here, we are moving, we are transforming, and the construction is making progress."
Hammack said people can always debate that things are a bit behind schedule, but that is the reality of the construction process.
"There is the 'unknown unknown,'" she explained. "You can try to forecast completion, but there can be challenges with sub-contractors, the environment and weather, or you find something when you dig."
She said there are also challenges with infrastructure -- hooking up to water, waste water, electricity or natural gas -- But that in the construction business those aren't really viewed as delays because they expect to see at least one of those challenges and then resolve it.
"We will continue with the plan and return land to the Korean government," Hammack said. "The U.S Army in Korea is making progress toward that move, and that is great to see!" x
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