Nathan Snider declared he was having a fantastic day with his parents as he planted his flippers on the jagged reef of a popular diving spot in the East China Sea. It was their 10th snorkel trip since his dad was stationed at Kadena Air Base on Japan’s southern island last year.
“Never would I have thought I would be here in this spot talking to you about Okinawa,” the 10-year-old from Spokane said.
He’s among the 5,000 or so family members of American military service members living in Japan this year. It’s a choice assignment for the Air Force family. Nathan and his mom said it has brought them all closer together.
“This place is a gem,” said Becky Snider, 37. “I can’t believe we live here.”
The feeling is fairly common among the thousands of military service members who bring their families overseas every year. For many, it’s a shared adventure of a lifetime despite the challenges of a long move abroad and the distance it places between them and their extended families.
On the bright side, they say they get to focus on each other. They’re also supported by military-run schools and activities that aim to diminish the difficulty of a foreign posting.
“This is the first time as a family that we get to experience military life together,” said Lakhina King, an Army wife who moved to the U.S. territory of Guam this year with her husband, Sgt. 1st Class John King.
The Sniders and Kings are stationed in places usually staffed with troops on temporary deployments of less than a year. Military service members on those shorter deployments may not bring their families with them.
Senior-ranking troops on longer assignments tend to be allowed to take spouses and children abroad. They’re often handed assignments of two to three years that are designed to recoup some of the military’s cost of moving a family to a remote site.
Overall, the number of foreign postings has been declining since the end of the Cold War. Back then, the U.S. kept more than 500,000 military service members abroad.
Now, the number is below 175,000, and it likely will shrink further. About 23,500 military family members are living overseas, according to recent Defense Department data.
A few factors are making it easier for lawmakers to nudge the U.S. military to continue reducing its foreign footprint.
They include advances in military transportation that allow troops to deploy faster from the mainland to faraway places, as well as easier access to state-of-the-art military training ranges back home in the states.
Domestic military communities have an interest in persuading the Pentagon to keep bases as full as possible, too. Lakewood and other cities in the South Sound, for instance, have been lobbying lawmakers to retain large numbers of troops at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. They view military bases as their economic anchors and would prefer to see the Defense Department invest in domestic facilities rather than foreign ones.
Reducing the number of troops abroad also can ease political tensions in places that have hosted American military units for decades. Many residents in some of those places, including Okinawa, badly want a smaller American military presence in their backyards.
David Vine, a professor at American University, estimated in his 2015 book “Base Nation” that the military has access to 800 base sites in other countries, including more than 60 large installations. Russia had the next most, with fewer than 10. He argues that the extended overseas presence is too costly, both in dollars and in goodwill.
“It’s part of this attitude that the military and this government more broadly have toward these places, an attitude that we can do whatever we want,” Vine said.
Around Okinawa, the Sniders say they haven’t encountered any harsh feelings during their time at Kadena. They love to tour the island and make a point to shop at local businesses and restaurants.
One of the popular local dishes reflects the island’s long history with American troops. It takes the contents of a taco — beef, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and hot sauce — and dumps it on white rice. It’s called taco rice, and Japanese are often its most enthusiastic diners.
“We never eat fast food,” Becky Snider said.
The Sniders also enjoy the military-run schools at Kadena, which Becky Snider said have helped her teenage children excel.
“It’s really, really safe here. It’s very family-oriented,” she said. Her family did not want to identify her husband, who is a senior noncommissioned in an Air Force unit.
A thousand miles away, the U.S. territory of Guam is preparing to become the home station for 4,800 Marines currently based on Okinawa.
Most Marines who will arrive in Guam over the next few years will not be allowed to bring their families. Instead, their assignments will be treated like temporary deployments.
The Kings quickly settled into a comfortable home when they moved to Guam this year from their home state of Florida.
“Guam didn’t fit into our plan,” said Lakhina, “but you learn you don’t make plans in the military.”
In recent years, John King, 32, deployed to Afghanistan or else worked very long hours at Fort Gordon in South Carolina.
Now, he’s the senior enlisted soldier in a unit that supports military communications across the Pacific.
It’s a demanding job, but one that let him bring his mother, wife and son with him to Guam for an extended assignment to share an experience 8,000 miles from home.
“Plus, we’re in Guam,” he said. “How many people can say that?”
The TNT goes to East Asia
News Tribune military reporter Adam Ashton spent three weeks in Japan and Guam this summer on a McClatchy project exploring what President Barack Obama has called the “Pacific pivot.” Ashton has also written extensively the past few years about how JBLM troops are part of the pivot, shifting much of their attention from Iraq and Afghanistan to East Asia partnerships.