Under a new Army policy called Essential Unit Messing, enlisted soldiers in rotational units in South Korea will be required to eat at the Army’s dining facilities, unless they want to pay out of pocket for their meals. Officers, will also be guaranteed three DFAC meals a day;, however, they will still incur some personal costs.
The policy, which went into effect Feb. 1, applies to all soldiers on operational deployments to the peninsula, said Paul Prince, an Army spokesman.
The 1st Cavalry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, which just began its nine-month deployment to South Korea, is the first to experience the change.
Under EUM, soldiers will have their meals provided through the military's dining facilities; the cost of the meals, at a reduced rate, will be deducted from a soldier's Basic Allowance for Subsistence.
The move to EUM was made "to ensure soldier health and readiness while on extended operational deployments to Korea," Prince said.
After learning about the new policy, a handful of readers wrote in to Army Times complaining that they or their soldier was unfairly losing their BAS while on deployment.
"BAS has not been taken away," Prince said, in response to a query from Army Times. "Deployed soldiers will now have their meals from military sources properly deducted."
BAS is meant to offset costs for a service member's meals, according to information from the Defense Department. It is not intended to offset the cost of meals for family members.
Maj. Gen. Ted Martin, commander of the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea, acknowledged that EUM is a "major change."
"I would say that this is a pretty big culture change for the soldier and for their families, and we recognize that," he said. "I understand that it's going to be a change in the bottom line for soldiers and their families when they're on a rotation."
But EUM ensures that soldiers on deployment to South Korea are getting well-rounded, nutritious meals three times a day, said Martin, who added that he regularly eats at the dining facilities as well.
"Every soldier, from the brand new private all the way up to the brigade commander and command sergeant major, are on meal cards," he said. "What I can guarantee the soldiers are great, healthy choices and a wonderful place to eat. I acknowledge the money situation is different, but, really, there is not a better deal than an Army meal."
Under EUM, all soldiers, regardless of rank, are provided three meals a day and charged the daily rate of $10.45, said Lt. Col. Sunset Belinsky, a spokeswoman for the 1st Cavalry Division.
Enlisted soldiers will have $313.50 a month deducted from their monthly BAS of $368.29 for a net BAS of $54.79, she said.
Officers also will have $313.50 a month deducted from their monthly BAS. Officers will pay $59.87 out of pocket because their monthly BAS is $253.63, Belinsky said.
In addition to having EUM, soldiers deployed to Korea also will receive the following additional pays:
• $150 a month in Hardship Duty Pay-Location.
• $250 a month in Family Separation Allowance, if applicable.
• $105 a month in Incidental Expenses, or $3.50 a day.
Soldiers from Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, unload their shipping containers in the chilly, early morning hours at Camp Hovey, South Korea, Feb. 4.
Photo Credit: Sgt. Christopher Dennis/Army
Part of the impetus for the new EUM policy stems from issues Army leaders discovered shortly after the 4,000 soldiers from 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, arrived in South Korea last June.
The brigade was the first rotational brigade combat team to serve in South Korea. The deployment coincided with the inactivation of 1st BCT, 2nd Infantry Division, which had been in South Korea for 50 years but was manned with soldiers who deployed individually from the U.S. for a year at a time.
Because it was a new deployment, leaders were forced to examine issues such as the type of deployment orders to issue to soldiers and whether they would receive meal cards to eat at the dining facilities.
Other issues were simpler. In the case of 2nd BCT, commanders in Korea didn't realize until the soldiers had arrived that they didn't have bedding for their barracks. The soldiers were quickly fielded Army-style sheets, pillowcases and blankets.
Leaders from the 1st Cavalry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team "made a concerted effort" to inform soldiers and their families about the differences in entitlements because of the policy changes between rotations, Belinsky said.
Col. John DiGiambattista, the commander of 1st BCT, "personally briefed every battalion on all our entitlements," he said.
"Many families have come to see BAS as an entitlement they got no matter what, and it wasn't really directed at the soldier's sustenance," he said. "As we move into Essential Unit Messing, we understand that funding is used to pay for our food here, so that kind of changes the way soldiers see their entitlements."
DiGiambattista said he believes eating in the DFACs will ensure his soldiers have plenty of options and opportunities for healthy food.
"We're continuously looking at how we can do this better so everyone is getting what they need in terms of nutrition," he said. "If your options are fast food or those types of things, the nutrition we're providing in the mess hall is really the best option for providing soldiers with what they need."
Because the EUM policy is so new, it did not apply to soldiers from 2nd Brigade Combat Team, who completed their nine-month rotation this month. The transfer of authority ceremony for the two brigades is Friday.
Soldiers in 2nd BCT did not have EUM, so they received their BAS as usual, Belinsky said. They were charged separately each time if they ate in the dining facility, and they received the Government Meal Rate of $13.85 a day for per diem, she said.
As early as last summer, at the start of 2nd BCT's deployment, leaders in the 2nd Infantry Division were already looking to invest more money into the dining facilities. Based on soldier feedback, possible improvements included blenders for fruit and protein shakes, Panini presses and waffle irons.
During 2nd BCT's deployment, maybe 900 to 1,100 soldiers used the dining facilities, while the others would buy their own groceries, eat on the economy or go to one of the different restaurants on post, Martin said.
A soldier dines on authentic Korean dishes at the Haneul Hyanggi Restaurant in Dongducheon, South Korea, during a tour organized by the Dongducheon City.
Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. John Healy/Army
Because all of 1st BCT will now be eating in the DFACs, "our headcount rises dramatically," he said.
"When we saw this coming, it was a major division operation to set it up so it would succeed," Martin said. "We needed more forks, we needed more knives. We really had to take a systematic look at throughput."
They hired more cooks and kitchen staff and ran three load tests to make sure the division's DFACs would be able to handle the additional soldiers.
"We brought every single soldier on orders for a day to test how good we were going to do," Martin said. "We looked at how long they had to wait in line, whether we were able to provide the food."
The division tested the DFACs three times over a three-month period, and "we've hit the sweet spot," Martin said.
Because soldiers are away from their families, "we put a lot of money into our mess halls so soldiers look forward to going there, and it becomes an area where camaraderie is built," he said. "We've got a little bit more work to do, but I'm pretty happy with what I've seen."
To further ease the load on the DFACs, 1st BCT has adjusted soldiers' work schedules to make sure they have time to get their meals, DiGiambattista said. For example, one battalion will start morning physical fitness training a little earlier than the others, so soldiers aren't all trying to grab breakfast at the same time.
Also, the work day will start about half an hour later so soldiers have time to get their food, he said.
"As we talk about Essential Unit Messing, that's very emotional, and there's really no way to get around the emotion involved," DiGiambattista said. "It is very important to soldiers, and as a chain of command, we know that. We're looking at every part of that process, from wait times to food quality to the nutrition values. It's important to us as leaders to make sure we're taking care of our soldiers."
Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.