Friday, February 20, 2009
I flew into Osan Airbase on 17 December 1996. A bleary seventeen-hour charter flight from Seattle, three weeks after graduating 19 Delta OSUT — a combined basic and advanced training for young Army scouts.
My grogginess vanished the moment I saw the Patriot battery lined up next to the runway, the boxy launchers aimed skyward to intercept inbound ballistic threats at next-to-no notice.
Yeah, welcome to Scud Missile Bombardment Country. Population: You.
My first response at all of age 23? Something between "fuck yeah" and "oh shit".
Also, welcome to the real Army, at last.
White flags with pink swastikas flew over blue-tiled roofs as we rode north through the frozen landscape in a touring bus. All of us on our way for inprocessing into the 2nd Infantry Division.
There were dozens of these flags.
Uh...gay Nazi Asians?
A South Korean KATUSA translator assigned to the US Army later explained this was a local Buddhist sect. The funny thing is, I had known beforehand the swastika originally started off as Hindu sun cross long before the Nazis reversed and appropriated it. Still, such a public display of a “fascist” symbol pushed an immediate button of revulsion completely out of place in Northwestern Asia.
Culture shock and jet lag combined to make the first three days intense.
I remember seeing for the first time, straight guys (Korean) walking down a street holding hands.
I wished my friends in Reno could see me as I left the Turtle Farm for the first time and walked out into Dongdu-chong and the local economy. A whole lot of strangeness to a kid from Northern Nevada, including a hazes of white winter smog against the mountains and the backdrop scent of a thousand charcoal-heated homes — the Republic of Korea’s hydrocarbon signature.
I saw my first dog farm on the way west a few days later, this time traveling to Camp Garry Owen. Big hounds in little kennels lined up along winding hillside footpaths. Roadside bunkers and trenches alongside frost-covered rice paddies. Rolls of razor wire carefully wrapped in plastic; mounted on pickets where the wire could be rapidly uncoiled and dragged across the highway, six rolls deep.
Two-story houses stood amid these preparations for war. The people living there went about their lives within easy range of the North’s massed artillery and chemical weapons.
Then there was the North Korean army, an invisible presence exerting pressure on everything. 1.6 million men stationed within sixty miles of the Demilitarized Zone in a permanent forward posture. But damn, the entire US Army worldwide was only five-hundred-thousand people — cooks, armor crewmembers, accountants, purchasing agents, mechanics, and everyone else.
Shit, the Norks had more infantrymen here than we had total soldiers everywhere.
Rolling by in the bus, I watched farmers and the townies whose lives we were there to help defend. For the first time I was struck by the reality of “the same but different.”
Later, I would watch a family at a hillside grave from a distance, seeing them scatter cigarettes around the burial mound and emptying a bottle of soju over it. Then kneeling to bow, rising, kneeling again and bowing, and rising yet again to repeat the process.
The Korean gate guards at the small ROK Army bases waved as our bus passed, apparently happy to see us. Three months earlier, a North Korean spy sub had grounded on the rocks just off the coast farther south on the peninsula while attempting to retrieve a team of commandos. The northern operatives had escorted the stranded crew to land, where they had arranged the sailors in a circle and shot each of them through the back of the head. Then they split up to fight their way north. All but two of the operatives died in the attempt.
We arrived at Garry Owen early in the evening, six miles south of the Demilitarized Zone and just off the eastern side of the Munsan valley invasion corridor. Two guys from our new platoon came down to the gate to fetch the newbies — those being me and three friends I'd graduated OSUT with.
"Run your shit upstairs real quick and drop it in your rooms. We're having a BBQ tonight. And get changed into your civies. No uniforms."
The platoon's members had a studied informality about them. The NCOs, enlisted, and the lieutenant all interacted casually. They wore civilian clothes and used each other's last names with a minimum of titles, as relaxed as if they were addressing each other by their given names.
Military formality seemed to be inversely based on perceived competence. The more skilled you were, the more relaxed your superiors and peers were with you.
There was an unspoken message here. Act like an adult and we’ll treat you as one. Show us you want to be a professional, and we’ll get you squared away.
There was no hazing, only the implicit and unrelenting demand we live up to their standards of workmanship and motivation.
I remember helping to break track in the motor pool a few days later, and realizing I was happy with where I was and what I was doing. A satisfaction I'd never previously found in school or student jobs.
I had a young man's serious, serious sense of pride at being a scout in Div Cav — the divisional cavalry squadron that was the armored reconnaissance edge of the United States Army in the Land of the Morning Calm.
Ten kilometers from the DMZ.
AKA, the 24/7 Cav, baby.
Living large at Camp Hairy Colon.
You can thrive here if you embrace the suck.
I was fascinated with our gear, the weapon systems, and the tracks (the armored vehicles), and even more so with how these fit together in a greater pattern. It’s the coherence of the larger whole that makes a collection of men and machines lethal on the battlefield.
I remember sitting in the Saber Club, waiting for a Southwest chicken sandwich, and knowing that less than twenty-miles away people were going hungry. North Korea’s great famine was nearing its end, and a million people had already perished from starvation or the enervating effects of malnutrition.
That moment of realization, my small luxury and its proximity to the suffering of others, left me thoughtful for days afterwards. Something I kept coming back to. Insignificant in the larger picture, but weird and meaningful to me.
I remember rolling out the front gate for the first time, the status of Bravo Troop becoming a part of my extended awareness. Thirteen Bradley scout vehicles, nine Abrams tanks, an M88 recovery vehicle, the mechanics' HMMWVs, the TOC command APC, the engineers' M113s, and the Kiowa scout helicopters overhead from our air troops
I saw the world for the first time in the fluid terms of maneuver corridors, fields of fire, paths of concealment, zones of cover. In all of this, I sensed the underlying high-energy unity of all things.
I remember sitting bolt upright in my barracks room, startled by what sounded like shrieking school girls. My squeamish fellow platoon members, who had apparently been watching some exceedingly nasty porn together.
The camp cable access TV channel showed Jerry Maguire over and fucking over again. Then came six months of Forrest Gump on HBO Asia.
I remember riding the bus south to take our military driver’s license tests, rolling through a snowy, sunlit landscape of flag-studded rice paddies. Each of those thousands of small yellow flags denoted a South Korean landmine that would have to be recovered come spring.
The Cardigans' “Lovefool” played on the bus radio as we drove. First time I ever heard that song.
I remember watching a romantic comedy with my best friend and his visiting fiance in his room, and marveling that we three should be here together, enjoying the familiar pop-culture pleasures of American cinema on the far side of the world.
Cool but wierd.
I remember my fellow privates and I crossing a frost-covered rice paddy dike, each of us carrying Vietnam-era M60 machine guns on the way to set up a target practice range. We reached the far side, us Gen-Xers joking we were salty Vietnam vets now, knowing full well what complete asses we were being.
I remember hearing North Korean music for the first time, a lullaby at three in the morning across the no-man’s land of the Demilitarized Zone. We gave the propaganda readers names, listening to Testosterone Man’s bass enumerations in a language I could not (yet) begin to comprehend. The News Lady’s rants building up into passionate orations, her shouting rages punctuated by moments of sorrowful, almost weepy retrospection. There were several distorted Wagner knockoffs. I mean seriously, does the world really need a half-dozen butchered versions of “Ride of the Valkyries” to praise the glories of the Workers’ Paradise with?
What is it with totalitarian states and that song anyways? Let’s try striving for a little originality, you Northern commie fucks.
I remember the new kids arriving fresh out of OSUT. Us “old hands” suddenly felt superior, we who had been there for all of two months. The newbies were integrated into the platoon with the same expectation of competence we had been given.
There was a day the newest KATUSA beat the shit out of the senior KATUSAs when they attempted to 'initiate' him into the unit. Turns out he was the South Korean national light-weight Tae Kwan Do champion.
I remember fucking up like all new privates do. Getting sick from having drunk the water and throwing up inside the diver compartment of my Bradley, then dry heaving out in the subzero cold while standing watch. I stalled out the vehicle while making a hard right turn in the motor pool. I addressed people by the wrong rank. I remember scouting ahead dismounted and without a radio, and losing sight of the vehicle I was supposed to be clearing the way for.
Gradually, I gained a feel for the differences between theory and practice.
I remember creeping silently through a hamlet on a cloudy day, unseen by everyone except two children.
Kids and dogs notice so much more of the world than adults do. A lesson to take to heart.
I remember being shy. I was still a quiet boy without much in the way of social skills outside a circle of long-time friends.
I remember traveling with my best friend down to Seoul on his last day in country. Then finding my way back on my own, crossing a city of nine million, unable to read signs, ATM keyboards or screens, and yet somehow intuiting my way from a bus, to the right subway car, then to the next bus that took me past a closed section of the subway, and finally to the warm brick splendor of the Russian-built main train station.
I remember being the only white person in a sea of black hair for the first time, feeling a lifting sense of enlightenment. So this is the world…
The first time so far from home on my own.
A child of three or four stared at me over the back of the bus seat in front of me. Such frank, open curiosity. Why does he look like that, momma?
A thousand blood-red neon crosses glowing above the cityscape on a black winter night as Seoul's Christians marked the season of Christmas.
Then there was laser tag fought with armored vehicles out in the ice-and-snow landscape. My thirty-ton track sliding downhill at midnight on a road of black ice into a village, certain that we were about to plow through the home in front of us where the road curved left.
I stood on the brakes in the driver’s compartment, the world outside gliding past in the spectral green of night vision.
Staff Sergeant M. freaking out up in the turret: “BLACK, what the FUCK are you DOING! Hit the brakes.”
Me: “What do you think I am doing, asshole? We’ve got no traction.”
Ooops, not a good way to address an NCO, even if he was an incompetent, panicked fuckup and source of embarrassment to his fellow sergeants. Needles to say, his rank always accompanied his name when others in the platoon talked about him.
The tracks grabbed the road for a moment, and our vehicle went into a spin, missing the house and somehow staying precisely centered on the divider line around the curve and beyond. I don't remember how I straightened the Bradley, but we ended up driving out the far side of the village without slowing or hitting anything.
Fucking willpower and magic, I guess.
I remember looking up to the Spec4 mafia — a group of scouts who had come to Garry Owen from Ft. Knox the year before, and who seemed to know everything that could be known about Bradleys and the world of armored reconnaissance. The specialists were part and parcel of the platoon’s culture of competency. They rarely bragged, and they never showed off or talked smack about the other platoons around us.
They didn’t have to. When you are that good at what you do, you don’t need to put other people down.
I remember getting letters from friends while in the field. The platoon sergeant pulled his Bradley up next to ours on the screen line, bringing us warm food, hot coco, and actual physical paper snail-mail.
“Fuck the civilian world, and fuck being back in garrison,” he said amicably. “We’ve got buds, hot chocolate, and we get to camp out all the time. That’s all you need.”
I remember the senior Specialist on my Bradly sprinting across a field with a farmer’s 90 pound bale of hay across his shoulders. In short order, we had our thirty-two ton vehicle camouflaged as a mound of dried grass. Surprisingly effective when you stood back a bit and looked at it.
I remember ROK Army Korean soldiers lined up along the road the next day as we rolled past. They stared at us with stony faces until I waved from my hatch. Suddenly they were all smiles and waving back energetically.
Respect will get you respect. Another good lesson for a young man.
I remember trying galbi for the first time, wrapping up seared pork, dried fish, slices of raw garlic and dollops of chili sauce inside a lettuce leaf. We reeked the next day. All four of us who had gone out were made to run well behind the rest of the formation during morning PT.
It was so good, we did it again and again, paying for a KATUSA friend's meals so he could translate for us.
I remember inching my Bradley across a rice paddy dike, the sprockets on the tracks hanging out above the void on either side. The lieutenant, who had hopped vehicles to ours, came up on the intercom.
“Black, I don’t want you to slow down or stop, but the dike is disintegrating behind us.”
“Uh…roger that, sir.” I gritted my teeth, no focus left to spare on this new development. It was already hard enough keeping from rolling over the vehicle to the left into the paddy or to the right down a long hillside. Yet, I felt fucking fantastic when we gained the far side unharmed, shifting from fear to triumph just like that.
We had a perfect controlling view from our position on the far side of that paddy, allowing us a line of fire up the length of the canyon from behind a low hill.
An old man ran up to our vehicle, shouting vehemently and trying to wave us off his land. His ancient-looking wife joining in the yelling.
The blond-haired, blued-eyed lieutenant popped his head out of the Bradley Commander’s hatch and flashed his pearly whites at ahjumma. Oh wow. Just like that, we could stay as long as we wanted. Pretty soon they were trotting out the grandkids to see the boyishly handsome straw-haired man.
What does that say about the world circa 1997?
The old man explained through our translator that they ran a progressive free-range dog farm. Would we care to try any of the meat?
My Korean vocabulary grew. As the winter wore on, my list of words ending in vowels lengthened. Yogi, chogi, yabosayo, kam sa ham ni da, soju, chuseyo, ne, anyo…
I remember Boss, the snack truck driver, pulling up to sell us hot chocolate and burritos outside the motor pool in near zero-degree weather. “Yes sir, Garry Owen, sir, Out front, very good, Boss!”
I remember being on alert, scrambling out the front gate at 3 am loaded for war, and finding our way to a battle position in some god-forsaken location none of us had ever even heard of before. Boss rolled up behind us in the snack truck, its overloaded suspension nearly bottoming out.
“You buy something hot?”
Yes, he really talked like that. Working class Korean English.
We went for nearly three days without sleep when it was all said and done that time.
I remember the ahjumma who set up her tent just outside our razor wire while we were at Rodriguez Range for a month. We traded MRE rations for steaming ramyon noodle soup with hot dog slices in it as well as for fried yaki mandu dumplings served with cinnamon-flavored ketchup.
She described her memories of the war: A child huddled with her mother in the basement of a ruined building, terrified while watching a door being blown open and shut by the overpressure of nearby artillery impacts.
I remember the range’s snack shack restaurant: “Burgah set!”
The sheer violence of the tanks shooting was truly awesome. Sitting on a hilltop a mile behind, I felt the sonic impact as a solid thump in my stomach.
The Kiowa scout helicopters took over, strafing targets, the crack of their rockets sounding like the munitions were literally splitting the air.
With the platoon seriously shorthanded, I fired as gunner on our Bradley, hearing for the first time the many noises of the Bushmaster 25mm chain gun in operation, throwing candle-sized slugs at targets over two kilometers down range. The “shack” of ammunition moving up the feed chute, the whine of the motor driving the bolt and track, the chatter of the thermal site I had my forehead pressed against, and the metallic thump of the firing pin slamming home, detonating a dynamite stick's worth of powder in the firing chamber next to my right knee — and never hearing those explosions due to some trick of physics.
A sensing round fired. Armor-piercing Sabot, straight flight path.
Thump, thump, thump.
Three round burst on target, smashing through the plywood target a kilometer away.
Infantry targets up with trucks. Switch to HEAT.
A pronounced arc in the flight path of the sensing high-explosive round.
Thump, thump, thump.
Rounds falling and detonating between the soft targets.
Thump, thump, thump.
Three more bursts of five-meter kill/wound radii for good measure.
Summertime at the range. Ninety-percent humidity, ninety-degree heat, no showers for two weeks.
Whores' baths with baby wipes. Those things are a godsend. “Shower in a box."
I remember laughing. Laughing a lot while living on our Bradleys in the field. I laughed more in the Army than I ever had before in life. Obscene jokes, clean jokes, intelligent conversations with ironic insights, masterful putdowns, bad puns, clever shit talking, odd tales from the Gulf War, funny stories from Vietnam, bizarre stories of past deployments and previous years in Korea. Black kids, white boys, Mexican men, Puerto Ricans, Asian-Americans, and Koreans all blending their various forms of verbal sparring, exaggerated anecdotes, and hard-edged humor.
I remember the spur ride. Over forty of us out in a field after two days of trials and tests of skill, buck naked and trying to clean ourselves off after a wrestling battle royale in a giant mud pit. And then…then this school bus full of Korean schoolgirls goes rolling past. On an abandoned dirt road that hadn’t seen a single other vehicle in almost a week.
And there we all are standing stock still.
Dead silence until the bus rounds a corner and disappears behind a hill, then a faint chorus of adolescent screams hanging in the air.
Weirdly, there wasn't any fallout from the incident. No delegation of enraged locals descended upon the squadron commander’s office, the police never showed up, the Korean state department never filed a complaint.
I remember coming in seventh place on the six-mile run at the end of the spur ride, a run with full gear and weapons. Holy shit, that meant I had beat nearly forty other guys! Hard, tough, in-good-shape kind of guys who pushed themselves to excel. But damn, I was turning into a brutally good long-distance runner.
A rainy, adrenaline-buoyed morning during the race. The rice paddies an almost luminescent light green while we ran. The Koreans who were out that morning smiled and waved as we ran past. Some brought their kids out to look at us.
Idle GIs in civilian clothes hanging around their towns got hostile looks. Nothing good could come of Joes with free time unless you ran a shitty dive bar. GIs training for war, however, were more than welcome. They liked our display of energy and our willingness to push at our limits. These behaviors apparently a reassurance that the world’s most powerful army would be in the fight if the Northerners came south.
That meant a lot for the people who remembered war and all of its horror and confusion.
I remember joking with my KATUSA roommate while in the motor pool about how short the trees are in Korea. "In America, everything is bigger."
He explained to me cooly that the Japanese had torched most of the forests when they had been forced to leave the peninsula at the end of World War II. The trees that survived those infernos had been blown apart or chopped down during the Korean War.
For some reason that freaked me out in a way knowledge of the famine to the north had not. Why? I honestly don't know. Because forests are supposed to outlive us all? Because I was surrounded by a hilly landscape of trees I now knew were short not by their nature but uniformly young due to a mass act of hatred. One my brain couldn't get a handle on at that point in life?
Whatever the cause, I experienced a kind of dark epiphany then. One echoing a realization from two years earlier in Bulgaria, when my best friend and I had been visiting his wife-to-be in her homeland.
History happens to people. It gets inflicted on them.
I remember hanging out over at a friend’s place just off post in a concrete labyrinth of tiny abutting houses. Normally, GIs couldn't live away from the barracks during their year in Korea. This guy, however, was married to a local. So we sat on the heated, rubber-like floor of their two room house, drinking soju and eating soup.
My friend walks out to buy some Oriental Beer™. The rest of us lean forward and ask his wife what really happened to our buddy’s dog: A small, shrill thing that had disappeared while we were out in the field. A yappy creature the wife loathed.
We all know what's coming.
“Oh, I gave that to the neighbor. He made a fantastic soup with it.”
“Wait. It’s not this soup, is it?”
I learn a new word: kegogi
I'm still not sure if she was being honest or fucking with us. She was definitely aware of our biases.
I remember doing yearly services in the motorpool, a nearly sleepless week of maintenance on the tracks. I was on my back under the Bradley and realized the world was going black. Then came the oddly appealing smell of frying bacon and burnt shit.
I crawled out from underneath and stood up. Fuck, fuck, fuck! The pig farm outside the camp, right on the other side of the chainlink fence, was on fire.
Three of us took off like insane motherfuckers, sprinting in our work coveralls. We went out the front gate, past the startled gate guards, and through the narrow confines of the neighborhood of close-set houses, skirting angry dogs and climbing over unsteady cinderblock walls until we reached the farm.
By the time we got there, the mechanics had cut a small hole in the fence and were assembling a fire hose in the motorpool. They fed it through to us, and the senior-most specialist headed into the burning barn, the lieutenants on the scene shouting encouragements. The mechanics opened the fire hydrant, and the hose exploded, water bursting out along its full length. Suddenly people were off and running to the other troops’ motorpools, searching for more fire hoses.
These were the Clinton years. We were sucking for money, spare parts, and training funds.
Some captains arrived on the other side of the fence.
“What are you idiots doing? Get out of there!”
So we moved away from the burning barn as they told the mechanics not to bother hooking up the new hoses.
A major arrived on the scene.
“Why the fuck are you idiots all just standing around!? Hook up the goddamn hose and put out that fire.”
It turned out to be a decent deed well rewarded. The old man who ran the farm lost some pigs to smoke inhalation, and he gave us two of the dead animals by way of thanks. The Puerto Ricans in the troop butchered the corpses behind the chow hall. They then interred the heavily spiced meat in a charcoal-lined pit Thursday afternoon. Come lunch on Friday, the troop commander called a halt to work as the pigs were dug up. Beer was broken out, officers donned their cavalry Stetsons, and spur holders put on their spurs.
We spent the rest of the afternoon, the entire troop, drinking, playing volleyball, and gorging ourselves on cinnamon and nutmeg-scented pork that slid off the bone.
I remember the insects of summer, the constant scream of the cicadas in June. Walk beneath a tree seeking shade and you couldn't carry on a conversation with the person standing next to you. The dragonflies of July, when the the outdoor air was filled with the shimmer of wings and the dartings of the bright-blue hunters. Then the spiders of August: Streamlined black- and yellow-banded arachnids that looked liked they had evolved to hunt inside wind tunnels.
I remember the graceful herons, the tall bright birds stalking their prey in emerald paddies.
One Sunday morning, I got up tired and half-hung over. A roommate, one of them, and I walked off post to the small eatery across the street from the front gate. Ahjumma served us ramyon with melted cheese slices on top as she chatted non-stop, half in English, half in Hanguk.
She made fun of the penguins in the documentary on the TV above the counter.
“They walk like old men.”
She told us about her son and his family. She explained that the British princess being shown on the Korean news channel had just died in a car crash.
I remember a TOW shoot on the edge of the DMZ, steering the wire-guided missiles down range in wooshes of destruction.
“Hey, sergeant, watch me fly this missile through the window of that junked car.”
I had a new vehicle commander now, and this guy was squared away.
“Bet you can’t do it! Oh shit, you did!”
I remember one of the missiles turning around on us, circling back despite the fact I had the targeting reticule centered on one of the smashed up cars.
“Black! What are you doing?”
For the first time that year, I felt panicked. “Nothing! I’m still on target!
The missile flew into a hill, impacting in a fountain of black earth.
I remember a broad paddy dike crumbling away under our Bradley one night while I was up in the gunners seat.
We came that damn close to rolling over as the vehicle slumped to the right.
Later, our platoon sergeant stood on an adjoining dike, flanked by two Bradleys, and gesturing to more Bradleys that had rolled up on the partially collapsed dike. All vehicles were linked by tow cables to my stuck track.
Like a symphony conductor, the platoon sergeant pointed at each track, guiding them forward in short sequences, slowly righting the stuck Bradley and pulling it out of the paddy without throwing track.
I remember gradually losing the Spec4 Mafia as they ETSed from the Army, returning to civilian life. Their former commander at Knox had arranged for them to be sent to Korea, knowing full well they would have to serve a twelve-month tour there plus the extra months left on their enlistments unless they re-upped. This meant fourteen to eighteen month in country for some of them, if they did not choose to stay in the Army. With the exception of one weak-link, they all toughed out the extra time rather than reenlist.
I remember losing our platoon leader and platoon sergeant when they rotated back to the States. The platoon slowly fell apart as we acquired a group of abusive NCOs. Apparently, “up here” near the DMZ the normal rules of military bearing no longer applied.
The culture of skill was replaced by a ridged one-way adherence to rank.
I remember one of them taunting the Buddhist Thai kid in our platoon.
“Is your Buddha going to save you now?”
We pushed back. One evening, we went to our new platoon leader as a group and explained our grievances. We were professional soldiers, we wanted to be treated as such. We also wanted to be addressed by our ranks instead of as “shit head,” “fuck up,” “retard,” and so on.
And our new lieutenant did the right thing. He took it to the troop commander, even though it cost him dearly in his standing with the platoon’s NCOs for the rest of his year in Korea.
I remember a tsunami of wrath coming down when our troop commander had waited long enough to gather some pretty damning evidence of overt racism and the mistreatment of his soldiers. He had seen us at work during the previous eight months. He knew we wanted to be there. That we loved to succeed when treated with a basic level of respect.
Holy shit, some serious screaming took place in the CO’s office. High-volume 'emotional' conversations followed by sergeants slinking around like beaten dogs.
Basic professionalism slowly returned to the platoon.
I remember setting out on a Friday morning run, our new troop first sergeant belting out his favorite cadence. “Whip me, beat me, I need love. Torture me with a leather glove. Stick fishhooks in my scrotum sack, rake your nails up and down my back. Because we’re hardcore, cavalry. Red and white. Fit to fight.”
I remember Sgt. S. coming back from leave in Germany, heartbroken. His German wife had surprised him with a divorce. Man, that sucked. He was a decent guy, one of the “old platoon.” I remember him and one of my fellow privates, both drunk as hell, playing Airborne Ranger. This apparently involved running full bore down the hallway and out onto the fire escape balcony, slamming gut first into a safety chain there and swinging out into the open air beyond.
Sgt. S.: “AIRRRBORNE!”
Three of us sprinted out onto the fire escape. Sgt. S. lay two stories below us, sprawled out peacefully asleep on the grass, unharmed.
“MP, MP don’t arrest me. Arrest that ahjussi behind the tree. He ate Scooby-do and Scrappy too. I just ate some yaki mandu. ‘Cause he’s hard core….”
Was that cadence racist? Kind of? Some sort of 1970s borderline transgression being replayed out loud in the mid 90s.
I remember Sgt. R getting into a fight with a phone booth in Sunyu-ri while staggeringly intoxicated. Puerto Rican inflected rage and shattering glass on an August night.
I remember our ranks continuing to thin as the summer wore on and tours were completed. Soon, we were down to just enough scouts to crew four of our six Bradley’s in the platoon, with no dismounts.
Then the Army disbanded the 82nd Airborne’s armor battalion, freeing up over a hundred enlisted scouts who had rather inexplicably (or so I thought) been serving as air-droppable Sheridan tank crews.
Oh yeah, there was a more than a little antagonism when those “airborne motherfuckers” arrived, all of them pining for their days in the All Americans. Each of them completely ignorant about the far older cavalry regiment they were now apart of.
Recipe for 7th Cavalry grog:
• 1 large bowel of fruit punch
• 1 bottle of firewater, Indian Wars
• 1 bottle of tequila, the pursuit of Poncho Villa
• 1 bottle of Rice Wine, Pacific Campaign WWII
• 1 bottle of soju, Korea
• 1 bottle of plumb wine, Vietnam
• 1 bottle of Sand™, Desert Storm
• 1 bottle of Blood™ for the fallen of the regiment.
"C-130 rollin' down the strip, god that cadence really makes me sick-"
"Hey, what the-"
"Wrrrrock! Back at Bragg, back at Bragg. Nobody here gives a fuck about back at Ft. Bragg."
Feelings got hurt, and the platoon pretty much segregated itself into the NCOs, the former 82nd tankers, and those of us who had been at Garry Owen for nearly eight months.
I remember going out to see movies on the economy in Munsan. Waiting outside the theater, watching ahjumma heat up a pressed and dried foot-long squid over a Bunsen burner. Flavoring it with a blend of spices from a battered metal shaker and handing it to me wrapped in a brown paper bag to enjoy during the film.
Another time, fish-shaped pastries sold by street vendors.
Yoghurt drinks on the trains.
I remember putting in requests for my next duty station. Ft. Knox, where my best friend was stationed, and one for Germany.
I got Germany. Schones Deutschland!
I remember heading down to Seoul for a day off, watching the countryside scroll by outside the bus window. Seeing Buddhist shrines but also Presbyterian cathedrals that looked as though they’d been airlifted in from continental Europe. Garden shops selling fifteen-foot tall concrete Buddhas and giant gray pagodas.
We hit the streets of a university district, the people there clearly delighted by the novelty of having wide-eyed foreigners in their midst. Especially the first time we went into a McDonald's.
I remember Chuseok, the Korean thanksgiving / harvest festival. An alert blew that night, a real world one. The North Koreans were moving troops down to the border.
There we were in the motor pool, loading up our vehicles and watching the troop commander yell at some unfortunate fuckup whose incompetence was screwing up our rollout time.
The captain hurled his Kevlar clear across the motor pool in a paroxysm of rage. Missiles hissed up from a hill to the west, leaving short-lived glittering trails from a ROK Army SAM battery site.
All the activity came to a total halt.
Oh, fuck me! We really are at war.
Then it dawned on us: Old school bottle rockets! Those were celebratory fireworks we were seeing and hearing.
Put yourself in a state of mind, and you’ll see the world in terms of it. Another good lesson.
I remember heading back out to Rodriguez Range in the fall, the tall stalks in the rice paddies now a tawny amber, and me coaxing our Brad across a high wooden bridge. The bridge being reinforced with two strips of concrete barely wide enough for the vehicle's tracks.
No sweat compared to a collapsing paddy dike.
I remember the NCOs rocking and rolling, knocking down target after target on the range. The platoon was coming together again after a fashion.
We didn't like each other, but we got along now.
The NCOs shot top gun in the squadron. In fact, they had the highest range score of any Bradley platoon in the division.
Thump, thump, thump.
I remember racing the Bradleys in the dry river bed outside Rodriguez Range.
I can not even begin to tell you how militarily wrong that was.
And yet so right.
Thirty-ton armored beasts slaloming across the sand and through the creeks. The scream of the six-hundred-horse diesel engine as I accelerated to cut off our opponents. The planing effect that begins to take place at 50mph, when all the vibrations in that rattling bucket of bolted plates and segmented tracks cancel out.
I remember standing in the vehicle commander’s hatch up in the turret while our sergeant took his turn racing. We came around a corner, and there, right there, was a concrete bridge, the bottom it level with our faces!
“Fuck a duck!”
We had just enough time to drop down and miss being decapitated.
Then our dumb asses were back up in the hatches screaming with joy. I worked the radio and warned the vehicles behind us.
I remember October, when the cold was coming back. The rice paddies were now barren and shit brown. No, I mean they really were shit brown. They don’t have cows or other large farm animals in Korea to supply fertilizer. They use human waste. For a month, the entire country smells of human shit. At least where we were at.
After awhile, you don’t mind.
I remember the month of November spent living in downtown Seoul. As a reward for shooting top gun in the division, our platoon had been assigned to augment the United Nations Honor Guard at the Yongsan garrison.
A total of three hours of parade duty a day, at most. Maybe a day on a Quick Reaction Force, which meant sitting around the break room with your battle rattle, but otherwise free to goof off or nap.
We rented movies while on QRF. We watched Austin Powers. We watched it five times in one day. During each showing, more people trickled into the room halfway through. Then they’d want to see the first half. By repetition three, we were all reciting the film’s funnier scenes verbatim.
We played a James Bond first-person shooter on a Nintendo system, head to head, stalking each other through digitally rendered 1960s films scenes. Much shit was talked.
We went from a heightened state of alertness, ready to roll out the gates of our countryside camp at short notice, to life in one of the world’s major urban centers.
We went out every night. We drank neon-blue cocktails with Russian girls who had come to vacation in a country that did not require them to have visas. We walked up Itaewon Hill, past the clubs, brothels, and bars to a place up at the crown that served soju slushies — a kind of high-octane explosive Slurpy™.
One time going up the hill, I heard a half strangled noise from behind. The prostitutes had snagged one of my roommates and were physically dragging him into a New York City-themed brothel.
Ah, yes. My first time ever in a cat house, trying to drag out a friend with three women wrapped around him — everyone on both sides of the tug’o war very aware that it was payday for the US Army in Korea.
We got out with our virtues and wallets intact, but I knew a couple of my friends would be back. Eleven months of enforced celibacy had more than taken its toll, and a friendly wrestling match with young ladies our age in skimpy clothing had left an indelible impression.
I hung out with the Thai soldiers in the UN garrison along with the Thai kid in our platoon. He got us an invitation to dinner. I accidentally served myself out of the colonel’s soup bowl (a large one at the center of the table), which our hosts found intensely amusing. They gave me a leather shadow puppet.
I remember a Koreans-only club at the foot of Itaewon Hill, its entrance framed by neon vagina lips. One night, a friend of mine was outside trying out his new video camera when a transvestite in a torn silk dress came hurdling out of the club, screaming in a state of tear-stained dishevelment. Two hungover girls seated on a nearby curb watched the scene blank faced. Then one placed her head between her knees and vomited. The other followed suit. The owner of a chicken kiosk started shouting at the girls.
“Did you get all of that?” one soldier asks.
“Hell yeah!” my friend replies on the tape.
I wandered the city by myself, greatly enjoying my first extended solitude in a year. I purchased dozens of music CDs and generally felt a sense of marvel at the complexity of the world and at the Koreans going about their lives. Different but the same.
For the most part, they wore their hearts on their sleeves. If you pissed them off, they’d let you know in shorter order. If you made them happy, they would take you into their homes and feed you. It was still largely a blue collar country at the time, but with a whole lot of change visible on the edges and in the larger cities.
Most of them grew friendlier towards strangers during warm weather, their reserve melting with the coming of summer and returning with the onset of winter.
Very much like Midwesterners in that respect.
I remember watching the Asian financial crisis set in, unable to detect any manifestations of that unfolding disaster on the streets aside from the falling exchange rate. People were still going to work, and new buildings were still going up, but not for long.
I remember loading onto the buses for the trip north back to Gary Owen. The freezing weather had arrived in earnest. The country was starting to look it had when we first arrived.
From the buss, I watched children, adults, and teenagers skating together, gliding smoothly across ice-covered paddies while tinny 1950s Korean crooner music played over public address systems.
With the changing of the seasons, I could feel it was time for us to be gone.
Our NCOs were more than happy to see those of us from the old platoon going home. They gave us two weeks of largely unsupervised work time as we signed ourselves out of the country. We took lots of bus trips and spent lots of time hanging out in the snack shacks of different Army camps after we had conducted the day's business with whichever part of the Army we had needed a stamp or signature from — none of us being in any hurry to get back to Gary Owen.
Lots of hamburgers, fries, and yaki mandu. More time watching the land from bus windows.
One time, we passed a Korean police car pulled over on the side of a road during. A slow turn out of a camp and onto the highway for us. Three juveniles visible in the back of the cruiser, cringing. The officer was questioning them, tapping them on their heads with his nightstick whenever they appeared to give an answer he found less than forthcoming.
Discipline was still old school in the ROK at that time. At least out in the countryside.
I wish I had been more personable back then. I wish I had been able to better connect with those around me. It would take another three years in the Army to develop that crucial skillset.
I remember our flight out of the country on 18 December 1997. A civilian jetliner out of Osan. I was still feeling the effects of drinking two nights previously during our last evening at Garry Owen. The first time I'd ever been truly drunk in my life.
I'd been out with the remainder of the old platoon that night.
The civilian contractor who ran our camp gunnery simulators had bought us kettle after kettle — kettles being communal pots of fruit juice (pineapple in this case) fortified with soju. At one point, I stood up to go piss and found myself flying upwards through the ceiling. When I came down, I was at the Blue Light UN club on the other side of the street watching a Filipina bargirl perform a lap dance on a lieutenant in front of the entire club. Woooooo!
Then I found myself staggering down the main street of town, back toward camp. Oh wow. This was so not good. Two Joes had been killed doing exactly the same thing during the year. The Koreans generally did not slow down when driving through town. They simply blew through at 70 miles-per hour.
OK, so drunk was not a good thing. The world is not your friend when you are hammered.
But at any rate, we safely made our flight two days later. All the female soldiers, sailors, and airmen aboard the plane wore Santa Claus hats. You could mark out how they were scattered across the cabin in small groups, red hats sticking up over the seats.
All of us were in civilian clothes.
American girls, black, white, yellow, and brown. We had hardly seen any of them for twelve months.
Our troop commander was on the flight as well. He had just finished two-plus years in country.
We arrived in Seattle three hours before we departed Korea. One of those oddities that comes from crossing the international dateline.
Us Ex-Garry Owen troopers sat around the arrivals lounge, all of us together in America for the first time. We told stories about the year that had just gone past, everyone describing their relief when they realized the missiles during Chuseok had been fireworks. Civilians sat on the edge of our group, listening intently to our moments of absurdity and satisfaction.
And then we broke up, splitting off in smaller groups as our connecting flights were announced.
The last group of Gary Owen soldiers I saw was in San Francisco at the airport. We smiled and promised to keep in touch. I can not even begin to explain how I felt in that moment. An unreal sense of closure, of having come full circle in a vast sweeping trip around the sun?
Yes but no. Kind of, but different.
I couldn't believe I would never see these people again.
The hazy light from outside was dreamlike as I walked down the concourse towards my flight home to Reno.
Ahead was Germany, Norway, and Macedonia.
Ahead was almost four years in Sweden.
Ahead would never be the same as before Korea. It would always be something brighter and more multifaceted.
Army propaganda. Yay and shit.
Homemade 4-7 Cav videos: