KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- U.S. Army Europe officials are reviewing overseas tour extensions for U.S. Army civilians to see if the five-year cap on tours and subsequent extensions is being fairly applied.
The USAREUR inspector general's office is conducting an online survey for its civilian workforce, seeking feedback on employees' experiences and perceptions of overseas tour extensions.
USAREUR commander Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges directed the assessment to determine if the program is fair, equitable and nondiscriminatory, said Chief Warrant Officer 5 John Bowles, USAREUR inspector general. The review follows reports from civilians about possible "unfair practices" within their commands, he said.
"Leaders want to make sure the program is equal across the board," Bowles said.
"The regulation's intent is to move people out by the fifth year," he said. "Are we actually doing that? In most cases, we're not."
The Pentagon's five-year rule restricts how long government service employees can remain overseas. Generally, civilians must receive command approval to stay overseas beyond five years.
The policy has been in place since 1966, but compliance for years has been uneven, sometimes even ignored, with some organizations automatically or routinely extending employees every two years. It wasn't unheard of for some workers to be in Europe for 20 years or more.
But a few years ago, the Pentagon shored up the regulation and said commands would require more justification for tour extensions. It raised the approval for extensions to higher authorities.
Even so, some civilians are still getting to stay in Europe more than five years. Of about 1,564 Army civilians currently assigned to USAREUR, 21st Theater Sustainment Command and Joint Multinational Training Command in Germany, about 134 have been overseas for seven or more years, according to USAREUR.
The survey is available online through Monday to USAREUR civilians who have access to USAREUR's Sharepoint portal at: https://intranet.eur.army.mil/hq/oig/otex2016/.
Other military commands in Europe are gathering similar data, Bowles said. USAREUR forwarded its survey to U.S. European Command, U.S. Africa Command and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Europe District), among others, at those organizations' requests.
"It's a European theater problem right now," Bowles said of the overseas extensions.
Though he doesn't expect the five-year rule will be lifted, Bowles said the survey results could shape recommendations to Hodges as well as to the Army and Pentagon on possible "change to some of the procedures here."
Bowles and his team, as part of their evaluation, are also interviewing commanders and supervisors about what criteria they are using to approve personnel for tour extensions and whether those justifications match current regulations.
As the policy stands, a commander may grant a single extension of two years -- after the five-year mark -- for special circumstances, such as a pending retirement or the graduation of a child from high school, Bowles said, as long as a plan to replace the employee after the extension expires is in place.
But some commands are continuing to grant additional extensions past seven years, he said, which would indicate the plan to find a replacement failed.
"In this case, the approving authority has to make a decision if the request is mission-related or not," Bowles said.
Bowles said the policy on paper doesn't always match the reality on the job. Some positions dealing with host-nation and coalition forces, for example, may require specialized skills that are mission-essential yet difficult to fill. The position may not exist in the States, so commanders "have to continue to extend that person in that one job."
That's where there's a "disconnect" in the current system, he said.
"It's just basically written for having a rotational-type force, bringing civilians from the States over here to gain knowledge and go back ... within five years," he said, but there's not always a ready supply of qualified personnel to rotate in and out.
"At the same time, you have folks ... that have been here for 20, 30 years, and they're not mission critical. They're just here."