from the Korean Army to being published

the blog of an "ex-patriot" writer in Korea

Entry #39: Band of Brothers

with 2 comments

While putting off writing at the coffee shop, I recently re-read Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose, reading it in English for the first time. Aside from being one of my all-time favorite television series, it had a special significance for me throughout my Army experience.

Although I knew I had to go to the Army a year before I was inducted—there was an order from the Ministry of Justice barring my departure from Korea—my last harebrained plan to secret myself out of the country didn’t fall through until two days before my date of induction. Resigned to my fate, I spent the day before watching a Band of Brothers marathon on OCN. Unlike all of the other recruits showing up for the start of their service, I had heard very little about what the Army was like and figured that watching a show about the U.S. Army in the mid-forties was the closest I could get. It was all the preparation I had for what awaited me for the next two years. I was wrong in so many ways.*

After boot camp, I was sent to the 100th Replenishment Unit in Daegu to take a test to determine whether I could be a linguist. My time at the Replenishment Unit consisted of hours of sitting at attention, staring at the wall. After a couple of days, a pair of sympathetic privates allowed me access to their library. I chose the only book that was familiar to me, Jeonwoo. Jeonwoo is the Korean title of Band of Brothers**, jeon meaning war and woo meaning friend. I read (or tried to read) one page and gave up. I couldn’t speak Korean and I couldn’t read it, either. The test was going to be a disaster.

My judgment proved wrong again; I ended up becoming a linguist for the Second Army HQ although there was very little in terms of linguistic work. The test went poorly but I think that they wanted to keep the soldier with the longest time abroad at HQ. It goes along with Korea’s focus on image. Several times I was called out on special assignment because of my English ability only to be chewed out because of my lack of Korean ability. I escaped the drudgery of Daegu by applying to a deployment to Afghanistan, again making the cut as a translator although I couldn’t speak Korean.

When I returned to the Second Army as a corporal, I still couldn’t speak fluently although I had picked up a lot (comparatively) during my time. I was sent on a special assignment for the Ulchi Focus Lens exercise and again got chewed out because I couldn’t translate or interpret. Tired of being chewed out and having some rank to use to my gain, I became a manual laborer for the company and spent my remaining days hiding in the squad room, avoiding the company commander and first sergeant.

During that time, I read voraciously. From the time I returned from deployment in March until I finished the following January, I had read 60-70 books, mostly Penguin classics but pretty much anything I could get my hands on. One of those books was Jeonwoo. I read it from cover to cover, although I relied heavily on my Korean-English dictionary. It was a personal victory and a marker for how far along I had come in terms of understanding Korean. I couldn’t get through the first page as a private and I could read the entire book as a sergeant. Admittedly, there were many sections I didn’t understand completely but it requires a certain level of understanding to get through a book in a foreign language even with the use of a dictionary.

I would write down lines that resonated with me in my journal and as I was reading it again, I remembered which ones I wrote down, now seven years later. One in particular was the following:

Whenever thereafter a man from Easy experienced cold or hunger or sleep deprivation, he would remind himself of Bastogne and recall that he had been through much worse.

There are some things that maybe all soldiers can relate to. I think this is one of them. When it’s severely cold out, a cold where the inside of my pants are cold to the touch, I think about that winter night sleeping in a tent in the mountains of South Chungcheong Province or manning the guardpost in the surprisingly cold Afghanistan winter. When I’m broke and living off kimbap, I remind myself of all those meals in the Army where I didn’t eat anything but rice and kimchi. When I have to wake up for work and I’m tired as hell, I think about all those nights waking up for guard duty, having to put on my uniform, unlocking my rifle, and taking the 2-ton up the mountain to guard post no. 10 in the darkness, sometimes watching the day break before coming back down.

Unfortunately, the hierarchical system in the Korean Army discourages fraternization and camaraderie and there are less than a handful of people from those two years that I bother to respond to when they contact me. Even then, I rarely see them in person. The members of Easy Company bonded through their experience and kept in contact throughout the years, writing to and visiting each other regularly and holding reunions. I would definitely pass if my unit chose to have a reunion.

After the landing in Normandy and the attack on Brecourt Manor, then Lieutenant Winters “made a promise to himself: if he lived through the war, he was going to find an isolated farm somewhere and spend the remainder of his life in peace and quiet.” I never experienced combat and don’t hope to compare my own military experience with the exploits of Easy Company, but I can relate with Winters’ feelings after that first day in France. As much as possible, my life after the Army has been the pursuit of comfort and peace and quiet.

* Here are just a few of the differences between Korean boot camp in 2004 and American boot camp in the mid-forties.
– Pay was much worse (20,000 won per month for a recruit in 2004, $50 for an infantryman in WWII, $100 for paratroopers).
– Reading about it later, recruits at Camp Toccoa could drink after training hours and had the possibility of weekend furloughs (although they were frequently revoked). The U.S. Army knows how to take care of their soldiers. In basic training, there wasn’t even time to take a shit and no luxuries except for a one-time collective use of the PX after the third week. No free time, no phone calls, no cigarettes, not even vending machine access.
– The men of Easy Company had Sobel; the recruits in my squad had Squad Leader Lee, who was just as chickenshit but also physically violent and psychologically deranged.
– They had beds in boot camp. My squad had two members more than our 20’x30’ room’s capacity (twenty recruits) and we slept shoulder to shoulder on the raised floors.

** Looking for a picture of the cover of the Korean translation on the Internet, I realize that the translated version might only have come out in the Army. The book was Army-issue and probably distributed to every unit. The first time I read it was at the Replenishment Company and the second was at the Headquarters Company. I didn’t bring the book with me when I left the Replenishment Company.


2 Responses

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  1. I wonder how the translation compares to the original.

    Gotta say: the boot camp conditions you described would have driven me crazy. Kudos on surviving that.

    Kevin Kim

    February 29, 2012 at 2:12 am

    • I’m not sure the translation is completely faithful to the original. I was looking in my post-deployment journal and found the quote I used in the entry and it’s slightly different: “이후로도 대원들은 춥고 배고프고 잠이 모자랄 때면 언제나 바스똔느를 기억한다.” It doesn’t include the last part of the sentence. I didn’t write down the next line but it feels like I would’ve if I felt that it was essential to the meaning. When I was reading the original, I was a bit confused because it wasn’t how I remembered it. Of course, it has been a long time.

      Thanks for the kudos. There’s a lot to say about it and the task is going to be deciding what is essential to the story. 170 pages is too much for five weeks.


      February 29, 2012 at 11:02 pm

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