By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 23, 2009 - (Editor's note: This story corrects an error contained in the original version, in which an inaccurate statement about future troop levels in South Korea was attributed to Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The article inaccurately reported the chairman said U.S. troop strength would be cut by roughly 14,000. The admiral's actual statement was that over the next nine years or so, about 14,000 U.S. servicemembers – half of the 28,000 serving in South Korea -- would be accompanied by command-sponsored dependents. We regret the error and apologize to all concerned.)
As South Korea's military transitions to full operational control, it's important to remember the past 60 years of U.S. commitment to the country and to not waver in that support, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen talked yesterday with servicemembers and defense civilians at U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul, Korea.
He spoke about his earlier meetings with his South Korean counterpart, citing "tremendous change" on the horizon. The Korean military is expected to assume a larger defense responsibility there in April 2012.
The alliance will only get stronger, the chairman said, with continued commitment from the United States.
The U.S.-South Korea alliance dates to the Korean War in 1950. An armistice was signed in July 1953 with North Korea, unofficially ending the war. The United Nations and U.S. military have maintained a presence in South Korea since then.
"Sometimes you don't think about this, but you are here as a part of that, and sometimes we don't think about how significant that alliance is in terms of preserving the freedom, preserving the democracy that is here in the Republic of Korea," Mullen said. "We are very much supportive of executing and sustain that alliance."
Mullen spent the previous two days with his Korean counterparts reviewing the changes and specifics of their alliance. One of the changes will be more command-sponsored families and new infrastructure to accommodate them, he said.
In December, about 1,700 U.S. troops with families were there. The number has since grown to 3,100. The chairman said that by the end of 2010 there would be about 4,500 command-sponsored U.S. families. That number is expected to grow to 14,000 over the next nine years of so, he added, noting that the Defense Department is planning to normalize three-year tour lengths there.
"That's a big undertaking, and it's difficult," the admiral said. "We've got to get the schools in, we've got to get the housing in, [and] we've got to have the entire infrastructure in the peninsula upgraded to make sure that we are ready for that transition."
Mullen also talked about changes occurring with the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. and NATO forces are in their ninth year of fighting in the Middle East, but where there was once doubt in Iraq, security is sustained and Iraq now can focus on building its government capacity, he said.
"Most of what's left in Iraq, quite frankly, is politics," he said. "When they have the elections in January, we start a pretty rapid drawdown in the March timeframe ... from 120,000 troops to about 35,000 to 50,000 less than a year from now.
"There was no group that made a bigger difference than men and women in uniform," he said of the progress made in Iraq. "I'm extremely grateful for your service, for the difference ... and the sacrifices that you make.
He added that all U.S. forces will be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011, allowing more focus on securing and building a democracy in Afghanistan.
Families also share in the sacrifices servicemembers make in the name of freedom and democracy, the admiral said. Mullen's wife, Deborah, met with spouses there during their visit and also is meeting with spouses of troops in Japan today.
"We try to do this wherever we go to understand what the challenges are for the families," he said. "We couldn't do it without family support, so [family] is a big focus for me."
Mullen credits leadership at all levels within the military for its ability to adjust to the persistent conflicts throughout the world. America values the combat experience of today's military, and maintaining that knowledge is critical to the future armed forces, he said.
"If we don't do that well, we will in fact be in a much more difficult situation at a time where things are changing and the pace will continue for the foreseeable future," he said. "Lead exceptionally well. It's an enormously challenging time."