So, the year of the Ox is here once more.
The Ox is my birth year, and the last time it came around on the cycle was my twelve months in Korea.
Perhaps the best year of my life, or damn close to it at any rate.
What I miss most about that time is the living, breathing intensity of being there. The paleness of memory simply does not stack up.
Still, I am glad beyond words to have those memories:
I remember flying into Osan Airbase on 17 December 1996 after a seventeen-hour charter flight from Seattle. I remember my grogginess vanishing the moment I spotted the Patriot battery lined up next to the runway, each of the launchers aimed skywards to intercept inbound ballistic threats.
Welcome to Scud country. Population: You
I remember white flags emblazoned with pink swastikas flying over blue tiled roofs as we rode north through frozen countryside in a touring bus.
There were dozens of these.
Uh...gay Nazi Asians?
A KATUSA translator later explained to me that this was a local Buddhist sect. The funny thing is that I had known that the reverse swastika had originally started off as Hindu sun cross, but still, such a public display of a “fascist” symbol pushed a cultural button of revulsion that was completely out of place in the Far East.
Culture shock and jet lag combined to make the first three days in country rather intense.
I remember seeing for the first time straight guys (Korean) walking down a street holding hands.
I remember wishing that 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 in all its strange glory. I remember the white winter smog against the mountains and the backdrop scent of a thousand charcoal heated homes — the Republic of Korea’s hydrocarbon signature.
I remember seeing my first Korean dog farm on the way north to Camp Garry Owen, big hounds in little kennels lined up along winding hillside footpaths.
I remember the fortifications: the roadside bunkers and the trenches alongside frost-covered rice paddies. I remember the 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.
I remember the blue roofs of the houses scattered amidst these preparations for war. I remember the black-haired people who lived there, well within range of the North’s massed artillery and chemical weapons.
Then there was the North Korean army: 1.6 million men stationed within 60 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, mechanics and so on.
Shit, the Norks had more infantrymen there than we had total soldiers everywhere.
I remember watching the Koreans from the bus, the farmers and village dwellers whose lives we were there to help defend. For the first time I was struck by the reality of “the same but different.”
I remember watching 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.
I remember the Korean gate guards at the small ROK Army bases waving to us as our bus passed by, apparently quite happy to see us. Three months earlier a North Korean spy sub had grounded on the rocks just off the South Korean shore while attempting to retrieve a team of commandos. The operatives onboard had escorted the stranded vessel’s crew to land, where they had arranged the sailors in a circle and shot each of them in the back of the head before splitting up to fight their way north. All but two of the operatives had died in the attempt.
I remember arriving at Garry Owen early in the evening. Two guys from our new platoon came down to the gate to fetch us newbies - the newbies being me and three friends whom I had graduated basic training with less than a month prior.
"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 men, and their lieutenant all interacted with a great deal of casualness. They wore civilian clothes and used each others 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 informal 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 that you want to be a professional and we’ll get you squared away.
There never was any hazing; only the implicit demand that we live up to their standards of workmanship and motivation.
I remember working in the motor pool a few days later and realizing that I was happy with where I was and what I was doing for the first time in my life. I remember discovering a satisfaction that I had never known previously in school or work.
I remember a sense of pride at being a scout in Div Cav, the divisional cavalry squadron that was the bleeding, 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 learn to embrace the suck.
I remember being fascinated with our gear, the weapon systems, and the tracks (the armored vehicles), and with how these components fit together in a greater pattern.
It’s the coherence of that larger pattern 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 underway. A million people had already perished from either starvation or the enervating effects of malnutrition.
That moment of realization, my small luxury and its proximity to the suffering of others, left me more than a little thoughtful for days afterwards.
I remember rolling out the front gate for the first time, and the status of Bravo Troop becoming a part of my extended awareness. 13 Bradley scout vehicles, nine Abrams tanks, an M88 recovery vehicle, the mechanic’s HMMWVs, the TOC command APC, the engineers’ M113s, and the Kiowa scout helicopters overhead from our two air troops
I remember seeing the world for the first time in the fluid terms of maneuver corridors, fields of fire, paths of concealment, zones of cover, and 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 the sound of shrieking school girls. It ended up being my squeamish fellow platoon members, who had apparently been watching some reeeeeeally nasty porn together.
I remember the camp cable access TV channel showing Jerry Maguire over and over and fucking over again. Then came six months of Forest Gump on HBO Asia.
I remember riding the bus south to take our military driver’s license tests, rolling through a sunlit landscape of snow and flag-studded rice paddies. Each of those hundreds of tiny yellow flags denoted a South Korean landmine that would have to be recovered come spring.
The Cardigan’s “Love Fool” was playing on the bus radio. 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.
I remember Nico, Katolas, and I crossing a frost-covered rice paddy dike, each of us carrying Vietnam-era M-60 machine guns on the way to set up a target practice range. I remember us on the far side of the dike, joking that we were all Vietnam veteran’s 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 drifting across the no-man’s land of the Demilitarized Zone. I remember giving the propaganda readers names; listening to Testosterone Man’s bass enumerations in a language that I could not (yet) begin to comprehend. I remember News Lady’s rants building up into passionate orations, her violent shouting rages punctuated by moments of sorrowful retrospection. I remember several distorted Wagner knockoffs. I mean seriously, does the world really need a half-dozen butchered versions of “Ride of the Valkyries” with which to praise the glories of the Workers’ Paradise?
Let’s try striving for a little originality, you Northern commie fucks.
I remember the new kids arriving fresh out of Basic. I remember how superior us “old hands” suddenly felt, we who had been there for all of two months. And I remember how soon the newbies were integrated into the platoon with the same silent expectation of competence that we had been given.
I remember the 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, as all new privates do. Getting sick from having drunk the local water and throwing up inside the diver’s compartment of my Bradley; then dry heaving out in the subzero cold while standing watch. I remember stalling out the vehicle while trying to make a hard right-hand turn. I remember addressing people by the wrong rank. I remember scouting ahead dismounted, and losing sight of the vehicle I was supposed to be clearing the way for. I remember moments of comprehension as I grew to understand 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, they notice so much more of the world than adults do.
I remember being shy. I remember being a quiet boy without much in the way of social skills outside my circle of childhood friends.
I remember traveling with my best friend down to Seoul on his last day in country. I remember finding my way back on my own, crossing a city of nine million, unable to read any signs, ATM keyboards or screens, and yet somehow still making my way from a bus, to the right subway car, then to the next bus that took me past a shutdown section of the subway, and finally to the heated brick splendor of Seoul's main train station.
I remember being the only white person in a sea of black hair, feeling a lifting sense of enlightenment. So this is the world…
I remember a Korean child of three or four staring at me over the back of the bus seat in front of me. Such frank, open curiosity as he silently tried to figure out what was wrong with this pale, round-eyed person behind him. Why does he look like that, momma?
I remember a thousand blood-red neon crosses floating above Seoul in the black of winter night as the city’s Christians marked the season of Christmas.
I remember laser tag fought with armored vehicles out in the winter landscape. I remember 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 to the left.
I was standing on the brakes in the driver’s compartment, with 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.
I remember the tracks finding purchase and our vehicle somehow going into a spin while staying precisely in the middle of the road and not hitting a DAMN thing! I remember somehow straightening the Bradley out without slowing down and driving straight out the other side of the village with no clue as to how I’d done it.
I remember looking up to the Spec4 mafia - a group of scouts who 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 mounted reconnaissance.
The specialists were part and parcel of that platoon’s culture of competency. They rarely bragged, they never showed off or talked smack about the other platoons around us. They didn’t have to. When you are that good you don’t need to put other people down.
I remember getting letters from friends while out in the field. Sergeant First Class F. pulled his Bradley up next to ours on the screen line to bring us warm food, hot coco, and actual physical paper snail-mail.
“Fuck the civilian world, and fuck being back in garrison,” I remember our platoon sergeant stating amicably. “We’ve got buds, hot chocolate, and we get to camp out all the time. That’s all you really need.”
I remember the senior Specialist on my Bradly sprinting across a field with some farmer’s 90lbs bale of hay on his back. 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 the ROK soldiers lined up along the road the next day as we rolled past. They stared at us with stony faces until I waved at them from my hatch. Suddenly they were all smiles and waving back happily.
Respect will get you respect. Another lesson learned.
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. I remember how bad we reeked the next day — all four of us who had gone out being made to run well behind the rest of the formation during morning PT.
It was so good that we did it again and again, paying for Sgt. Lee’s meals so that he could translate for us.
I remember inching my Bradley across a rice paddy dike, the sprockets on my tracks hanging out above the void on either side. Then Lieutenant G., 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 really did not have any focus left to spare on this new development. I was too busy trying to keep us from rolling over to the left or right as it was.
I remember the controlling view from our position on the far side of the paddy, allowing us a great line of fire up the canyon.
I remember the old man running up to our vehicle, shouting vehemently and trying to wave us off his land. I remember his ancient wife joining in the yelling.
Then blond-haired, blued-eyed Lieutenant G. popped his head out of the Bradley Commander’s hatch and flashed his pearly whites at ahjima. Oh wow. Suddenly, just like that, she decided we could stay there for as long as we wanted. Pretty soon they were totting out the grandkids to see the boyishly handsome straw-haired man.
I remember the old guy talking to our translator Sgt. Lee, explaining to us through him that they ran a very progressive free-range dog farm. Would we care to try any of the meat?
I remember slowly accruing a Korean vocabulary. 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 3am loaded for war and finding our way to a battle position in some god forsaken location that none of us had ever even heard of before. I remember Boss rolling up behind us in the snack truck, its overloaded suspension nearly bottoming out.
“You buy something hot?”
I remember three days without sleep.
I remember the ahjima who set up her tent just outside our razor wire while we were at Rodriguez Range for a month. I remember trading MRE rations with her for steaming ramyon noodle soup with hot dog slices in it as well as for fried yakimandu dumplings served with cinnamon-flavored ketchup.
I remember her describing her memories of the war: Of being a child huddled with her mother in the basement of a ruined building, terrified as she watched a door being blown open and shut by the overpressure of nearby artillery impacts.
I remember the range’s snack shack restaurant: “Burgah set!”
I remember the sheer violent awesomeness of watching the tanks shoot. I remember sitting on a hilltop a mile behind, and still feeling the sonic impact as a solid thump in my stomach.
I remember the Kiowa scout ‘copters strafing targets, the crack of their rockets splitting the air.
I remember firing on the Bradley during my first time as a gunner. All of the varied noises of the Bushmaster 25mm chain gun in operation as I threw candle-sized slugs down range at targets over two kilometers distant. I remember 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 that 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 over a kilometer away.
Infantry targets up, with trucks. Switch to HEAT.
A pronounced arc in the flight path of the sensing HEAT round.
Thump, thump, thump.
Rounds falling and detonating amidst the soft targets.
Thump, thump, thump.
Three more bursts of five-meter kill/wound radii for good measure.
I remember 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 calls ‘em.
I remember laughing, I remember laughing a lot during our time out there, living off the backs of our Bradleys in the field. I laughed more in the Army than I ever had before in life. Dirty 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, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Asian Americans, and Koreans all blending their various forms of verbal sparing, 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 battle royal in a giant mud pit. And then…then this school bus full of Korean school girls 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. Ooops.
Dead silence until the bus rounds a corner and disappears behind a hill, and then comes a faint chorus of adolescent screams hanging in the air.
And we never heard anything about this incident again. 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 that I 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.
It was spring time: messy, raining, and glorious. The rice paddies were an almost luminescent light green then.
The Koreans who were out on the gray morning smiled and waved to us as we ran past. Some brought their children out to look at us.
Idle GIs in civilian clothes lounging around their towns were generally greeted with suspicion and cold looks. Nothing good could come of GIs with free time unless you ran a bar or massage parlor. GIs who were training for war, however, were more than welcome. They liked our display of energy and our willingness to push the boundaries of our limits. These behaviors were apparently a form of reassurance that the world’s most powerful army would be in the fight if the North Koreans came south.
This meant a lot for those older South Koreans who remembered war and all of its misery, horror, and confusion.
I remember joking with Sgt. Lee while in the motor pool about how short the trees are in Korea. "In America, everything is bigger."
He explained to me that Japanese had torched most of the Korean peninsula's forests when they had been forced to leave at the end of World War II. Most of the trees that had survived that holocaust had then been destroyed or chopped down during the Korean War.
For some reason *that* freaked me out. The mass murder of trees. And I experienced a kind of dark epiphany then, one that echoed 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 get's inflicted on them.
I remember hanging out over at a friend’s house just off post in a small concrete labyrinth. Normally GI’s can not 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 tinny 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 Korean wife what really happened to our buddy’s dog: a small shrill thing that had disappeared while we were out in the field. A tinny yappy creature that the wife had loathed.
We all know what is coming.
“Oh, I gave it to neighbor. He made a fantastic soup with it!”
“Wait a moment. It’s not this soup, is it?”
I learn a new word: kegogi
I remember doing yearly services in the motor pool, a nearly sleepless week of maintenance on the tracks. I remember working under my Bradley and then realizing that the world was going black. Then came the oddly appealing smell of burnt shit and frying bacon.
I stood up. Fuck, fuck, fuck! The pig farm right outside the camp was on fire.
Three of us took off like insane mother fuckers, sprinting in our work coveralls. We went out the front gate, past the startled gate guards, and through the narrow confines of the Korean neighborhood, skirting angry dogs and climbing over unsteady cinder block walls until we reached the farm.
By that time the mechanics had cut a small hole in the chain-link fence and were assembling a fire hose in the motor pool. They fed it through to us, and the senior-most specialist among us headed into the burning barn, the lieutenants on the scene shouting out their encouragements to him. The mechanics turned on the fire hydrant and the hose exploded, water bursting out along its full length. Suddenly people were off and running to the other troops’ motor pools, 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 scene, 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 that god-damn hose and put out that fire.”
It worked out for us in the end. The old man who ran the farm had lost some pigs to smoke inhalation during the fire, and he donated two of the dead animals to us. The Puerto Ricans in the troop butchered the pig corpses behind the chow hall. They then interred the heavily spiced meat in a pit lined with burning charcoal on Thursday afternoon. Come lunch on Friday, the troop commander called a halt to work as the pigs were dug up and enplated. 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 tender, cinnamon and nutmeg-scented pork that slid off the bone.
I remember the insects of summer, the constant scream of the cicada in June. Walk beneath a tree seeking shade and you could not carry on a conversation with the person standing next to you. I remember the dragonflies of July, the outdoor air filled with the shimmer of wings and the darting of the bright blue hunters. Then the spiders of August: Lean, black- and yellow-banded arachnids that looked as though they had evolved to hunt inside wind tunnels.
I remember the graceful herons, the tall bright birds stalking their prey in emerald green paddies.
I remember getting up one Sunday morning, tired and half-hung over. I remember Lippy and me walking off post to the small eatery across the street from the front gate. Ahjima served us ramyon with melted cheese slices on top as she chattered 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. Hah hah.”
She told us about her son, and his family. She explained that the British princess now 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 down there.”
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 firmly 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 having a rice paddy dike collapse out from underneath our Bradley one night while I was up in the turret.
We came *that* damn close to rolling over.
I remember our platoon sergeant later standing on an adjoining dike, flanked by two Bradleys, and gesturing to more Bradleys that had rolled up on the partially collapse dike. All of them were linked by tow cables to my stuck vehicle.
Like a symphony conductor, Sergeant Firestone pointed at each track, guiding them forward in sequence as the stuck Bradley was slowly righted and pulled out of the paddy.
I remember gradually losing the Spec4 Mafia as they ETSed from the Army, returning to civilian life. Their former commander at Ft. Knox had arranged for them to be sent to Korea, knowing full well that 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, profanity-spewing NCOs. Apparently they thought that “up here” near the DMZ, the normal rules of civility and military bearing no longer applied.
The culture of skill had been 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?”
I remember us pushing 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 concerning petty racism and the mistreatment of his soldiers. He valued us. He had seen us at work over the previous eight months. He knew our quality and that we wanted to be there; that we loved to succeed when treated with a basic level of respect.
Holy shit there was some serious screaming that took place in the CO’s office — high-volume “emotional” conversations followed by sergeants slinking around like whipped curs.
I remember the slow return of basic professionalism to the group.
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 Roady, both quite drunk, playing Airborne Ranger. This pretty much involved them running full bore down the hallway and out on to the open fire escape, slamming gut first into a safety chain there and swinging out into the open air beyond.
Sgt. S.: “AIIIIRRRBORNE!”
I remember three of us sprinting out onto the fire escape, and there was Sgt. S., two stories below us, sprawled out peacefully asleep on the grass, unharmed, untouched.
“MP, MP don’t arrest me. Arrest that ahjussi behind the tree. He ate Scooby-do and Scrappy too. I just ate some yakimandu. ‘Cause he’s hard core….”
I remember Sgt. R getting into a fight with a phone booth in Sunyu-ri while staggeringly intoxicated.
Ah the sound of Puerto Rican rage and shattering glass on an August night.
I remember our ranks continuing to thin as the summer wore on and tours of duty 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 airborne Sheridan tank crews.
Oh yeah, there was a more than a little friction as those “airborne motherfuckers” arrived, all of them pining for their days in the All Americans and completely ignorant about the far older cavalry regiment that they were now apart of.
Recipe for the 7th Cavalry’s 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 rolling 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. I remember waiting outside the theater, watching ahjima 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.
I remember ice-cream-filled fish-shaped pastries sold by street vendors.
Yoghurt drinks on the trains.
I remember putting in a request for my next duty station: Ft. Knox, where my best friend was stationed, and one for Germany.
And I got Germany. Whooooohooooo!!!! Schones Deutschland!
I remember heading down to Seoul for a day off, watching the ever-exotic countryside flow by outside the bus window; seeing Buddhist shrines as well as Presbyterian cathedrals that looked as though they’d been airlifted in from continental Europe. I remember garden shops that sold fifteen-foot tall concrete Buddhas as well as giant gray pagodas.
I remember hitting the streets of a university district, the locals there clearly delighted with the novelty of having wide-eyed foreigners in their midst. Especially the first time that we went into a McDonalds.
I remember Chusok, the Korea thanksgiving/harvest festival. I remember the alert that 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 whose incompetence was screwing up our rollout time.
The captain hurled his Kevlar clear across the motor pool in a paroxysm of rage. Missiles screamed up from a hill to the west, where the ROK Army had a SAM battery.
Everything, all the activity and conversations in the motor pool came to a halt.
Oh, fuck me! We really are at war.
Then it dawned on us collectively: Bottle rockets! Those were celebratory bottle rockets 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 for a scout to remember.
I remember heading back out to Rodriguez Range in the fall, with the tall stalks in rice paddies turning a tawny shade of amber, and me coaxing our Brad across a high wooden bridge that had been reinforced with two strips of concrete, just wide enough for the vehicle’s tracks.
I remember the NCOs rocking and rolling, knocking down target after target. The platoon was coming together again after a fashion. We were a functioning unit again.
We did not 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 it was 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 start to 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, there was a bridge, the bottom of which was right on 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 as I worked the radio and warned the vehicles behind us.
I remember October, 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 country to supply fertilizer. They use human waste. For a month, the entire country smells of human shit.
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 the most. Maybe a day on a Quick Reaction Force, which meant sitting around the break room with your battle rattle, but otherwise still free to goof off or nap.
We rented movies while on QRF. We watched the first Austin Powers. We watched it five times in one day. During each showing, more people would trickle into the room half way through. Then they’d want to see the first half. By repetition three we were all able to recite film’s funnier scenes verbatim.
We played a James Bond first-person shooter on a Nintendo system, head to head, stalking each other through the digitally rendered 1960s films scenes. Much shit was talked.
We went from being at a heightened state of alertness, ready to roll out the gates of our tiny 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 Itawan hill, past the clubs, past the whore houses, and the 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 kind of half strangled noise from behind. The prostitutes had snagged Lippy and were physically dragging him into a New York City themed brothel.
Ah, my first time ever in a cat house, trying to drag out a friend who had three different women wrapped around him — everyone on both sides of the tug’o war so very aware that it was payday for the US Army in Korea.
We got out with our virtues and wallets intact, but I knew that a couple of my friends would be back in the very near future. Eleven months of enforced celibacy had taken its toll.
I hung out with the Thai soldiers in the UN garrison with Kit, the Thai kid in our platoon. He got us an invitation to dinner with them. I accidentally served myself out of the colonel’s soup bowel (a large one in the center of the table), which the Thais found intensely amusing. They gave me a leather shadow puppet, which I in turn gave to my sister back in the States.
I remember a Koreans-only club at the foot of Iatwan hill, its entrance framed by neon vagina lips. One night, a friend of mine was outside trying out his new video recorder and filming in the action on the street when a Korean transvestite in a torn silk dress came hurdling out of the club, screaming in a state of tear-stained dishevelment. There were two hung-over Korean girls seated on a nearby curb watching this scene. 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 on film?” one soldier asked.
I wandered the city by myself, reveling in the first extended solitude that I had enjoyed in a year. I purchased music CDs and generally felt a sense of marvel at the complexity of the world and a sense of wonder for all of these Koreans around me. So odd, so alien, and yet nearly the same as people back in the States.
They were not a people of extreme politeness, like the Japanese. Rather, they were brutally honest. 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 adopt you and take you into their homes to feed you.
They grew friendlier towards strangers in the warm weather, their reserve melting with the coming of summer and rising with the onset of winter.
Very much like Midwesterners in that respect.
I remember watching the Asian financial crises set in and being unable to detect any manifestations of that unfolding economic 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. The country was starting to look exactly as it had when we had arrived there.
I remember seeing children, adults, and teenagers skating together, gliding smoothly across ice-covered rice paddies, while tinny 1950s Korean crooner music played over public address systems.
I remember knowing that it was time for us to be gone.
Our NCOs were glad to see us going home, those of us from the old platoon. They gave us two weeks of largely unsupervised free time as we went through the process of signing ourselves out of the country. We took lots of bus trips and spent time hanging out in the snack shacks of different Army camps after we had conducted the days’ business with whichever part of the Army we had needed a stamp or signature from - none of us being in any big hurry to get back to Gary Owen.
Lots of hamburgers, fries, and yakimandu. Lot’s of time spent looking at the landscape rolling by from bus windows.
I remember passing a Korean police car pulled over on the side of the road during one such excursion. Three juveniles sat in the back of the cruiser, cringing. The officer was questioning them, tapping them on their heads with his night stick whenever they appeared to give an answer that he found less than forthcoming.
Discipline was still rather old school in the ROK at that time.
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 for that crucial skill set to fully develop.
I remember our flight out of the country on 18 December 1997. It was a civilian jetliner out of Osan. I was still feeling the effects of having gone out drinking two nights previously during our last evening at Garry Owen. It was the first time I had ever been truly drunk in my life.
I had 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, as I was at the Blue Light UN club on the other side of the street, watching a Philippina bar girl 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 towards camp. Oh wow. This was so not good. Two Joes had been killed doing exactly the same thing during that year. After all, the Koreans generally did not slow down. They simply blew through the town at 70 miles-per hour.
Ok, so drunk was not a good thing. The world is not your friend when you are drunk.
But at any rate, we safely made our flight two days later. All of the female soldiers, sailors, and airmen onboard the plane were wearing Santa Claus hats. You could see how they were scattered across the cabin in small groups, the hats sticking up over the seats and clearly marking their positions.
All of us were in civilian clothes.
Girls. White girls, black girls, brown girls. 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 come from crossing the international dateline.
We 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 Chusok had just been bottle rockets. Civilians sat on the edge of our group, listening intently to our moments of absurdity, mirth, wonder, and satisfaction.
And then we broke up, splitting off in smaller groups as our connecting flights made ready for departure.
The last group of my Gary Owen friends that I saw was in San Francisco at the airport. We smiled, promised to keep in touch. I can not even begin to explain how I felt at that moment. It was an unreal sense of closure, of having come full circle in a sweeping trip around the sun.
I could not believe that 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 Kosovo.
Ahead was almost four years in Sweden.
Ahead would never be the same as it had been, before Korea. Now it would always be something larger, brighter, and more multifaceted.
Army propaganda, wooooooo!
Homemade 4-7 Cav videos: