Morale: No Good Deed Goes Unexploited

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March 9, 2007: The U.S. Army thought it had a good idea when it offered bonuses for soldiers in South Korea, if they would stay in South Korea for an extra 12 or 24 months. Then word got out that some troops kept extending their duty in South Korea, to avoid going to Iraq. So the army recently changed the rule. You could not extend your duty in South Korea unless you had served at least one year in Iraq or Afghanistan.

For over half a century, the tour of duty in South Korea has been 12 months. So each year, the army has to replace everyone there. That's expensive. For a long time, South Korea was considered a hardship post. If married, you could not bring your family. For the majority of Americans, South Korea was a very alien culture. Troops sent to Europe could bring their families, and the tour of duty there was three years. Going to Europe was great, going to South Korea was a hardship tour.

But over the last two decades, the South Korean economy has boomed. It's still an East Asian culture, but English is a popular second language, and U.S. culture is pervasive. It's not much of a hardship anymore. But the army does not want to treat it like Europe (three year tour, bring the family), because North Korea is still seen as a very unpredictable and dangerous threat. But paying troops $300 extra month to stay an extra 12 months, or $400 a month to stay an extra 24 months, has saved over $20 million since the program was introduced two years ago. It was always possible to voluntarily extend your tour in South Korea, but relatively few troops did this.

Then the word got around that troops were boasting that they were never going to Iraq, as long as they stayed in South Korea and collected their bonus. While there were never many (a few dozen) troops doing this, there will be none now that the new rule is in effect. Only about 40 percent of active duty U.S. troops army have served in Iraq and Afghanistan so far. Some will never serve because of minor disabilities, or because they have job skills that are not needed. But most of those who have not yet been to the sandbox, will likely go. Eventually.

Avoiding unpleasant service in this way is an old army tradition. It even has a name, "homesteading." For generations, most army bases had a few senior NCOs who had managed, via influence and playing the system, to stay in one place for year after year. It happened in wartime as well. But it just got harder to homestead in South Korea.

 


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