Thanksgiving in Korea

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. WordPress has pointed out to me that some readers have been from outside the US, so to you folks I say ‘thank you’ for stopping by and the story to follow will shed some light on what to me is the best American (and Canadian) holiday. While I prefer summer over any other season, Thanksgiving remains my favorite holiday. The food shared is always the best, both in taste and in variety. The mixing of traditions and sharing of experiences leaves treasured memories. The very idea behind the day, to reflect on what to be grateful for and vocalize your thanks, is something that should be done every day of the year. Thanksgiving, to me, is a day that stands out in American culture as an example of who we are at our best. One of the nicest things about living in western NY is that it’s very easy to travel north and celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving as well, a double dip of gratuity. Ironically the True North version falls on Columbus Day in the US, a holiday that is now somewhat controversial due to the atrocities inflicted upon the indigenous tribes.

Thanksgiving is also tops in my book for another reason. With Thanksgiving comes one of my favorite Army (really military wide) traditions. Army chow halls are typically thought of as having food so bad it is the butt of classic military humor. Griping about the lousy food is something of an official pastime for troops. While I experienced some food that would back up those jokes, I’ve also had absolutely fantastic meals served up by Army cooks. The top culinary teams in the Army compete within their field each year. I was lucky to be a part of this during my first stint at Fort Hood. While that’s a bit off topic for today, I promise to revisit that one. These cooks deserve the recognition for their good work, doubly so because of the shit-on-a-shingle stereotype. OK, back to my point, the tradition I speak of is that of officers and senior NCOs donning their dress blues and serving chow to the soldiers. The formality of wearing dress blues is something missing from modern life. I really think we could all do with a bit more pomp and circumstance sometimes. The act of serving food to our soldiers was always something I enjoyed as it got to the heart of the idea of being a servant leader. This day gives any leader who is worth their salt a chance to show compassion, to bond, and to take care of their subordinates in one of the most basic ways – serving food. This also pulls at my Franciscan heartstrings. Thanksgiving is a day that I truly miss the Army.

Now that you have the set up, here’s a story of my most memorable Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving day 2007, Camp Casey, ROK. This was a different twist on serving dinner. I drew an early shift at the DFAC (dinning facility) that was right across the street from my quarters. For some reason we wore ACUs instead of dress blues, something that bummed me out. I lugged that damn uniform over 7,100 miles and one of the rare occasions to wear them was being pissed away. They also cost me around $700 and I wanted to get some use out of them! Anyway, I went and did my shift, got to serve some of my own platoon and other soldiers from my battery. That was also the day that I met my newest platoon sergeant. Due to the typical 12 month rotation we all had, I had already gone through two platoon sergeants in five months. So now came #3. The constant changes posed a big challenge, but I had been told by a couple of the NCOs in my battery that the guy coming in to be my new PSG was top notch. So that was an interesting way to meet someone who I would be working hip-to-hip with for the next several months.

With all that done I walked back to my odd flat, it was more than a room, but not really an apartment (I washed my dishes in my bathtub), got changed, and hopped the train down to Seoul. I had been invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of one of my former ROTC instructors, Reed. I was a bit nervous about this as Reed was then a major and I knew all the other guests would be a bit higher ranking than me. This left me wondering what that dynamic would be like. Little did I know that this would become one of my best memories.

A holiday spent so far from family is always weird. Let’s just be up front about that. When you’re 23 and not very well traveled it’s an even more daunting prospect. Then again I had spent Thanksgiving 2006 eating shitty chicken parm by myself in a Village Inn restaurant in El Paso. THAT is easily my worst Thanksgiving (which is saying something since my Aunt Angeline died one Thanksgiving). So once I found Reed’s building and got reacquainted with his wife Janice and their children things got a lot easier. Reed and Janice made me feel like part of the family and I watched them treat everyone else with the same hospitality. I learned a lot about making the best of every situation, how helping to build the community around you (even if it’s just the other neighbors on the floor) is vital to being happy. All the other people at dinner were far from their homes too. While they all had their spouses and children with them in Korea, there was a shared sense of treating each other as an extended family as a simple matter of fact. This is an interesting thing learned from overseas assignments and years of semi-nomadic living. With ever shifting environments and unrelenting moves, building out this extended family was partly done out of survival, partly for maintaining sanity, and partly love.

The older men and women there (really only about 10 years my senior) seemed much older and wiser to me. I was the odd man out for sure. The only one there on my own, the only one with nowhere else to go, the only one with no other family to be with. I was taken in by all and saw Army life at its best. The companionship, sense of community and shared troubles, these experiences brought a bunch of strangers together and made us family for a while. I can’t say I experienced this at every duty station, and for me it was the exception not the rule. I think for anyone to make a career out of the military you need to have this on a consistent basis otherwise the lifestyle breaks you.

I also learned that day that my former instructor was a phenomenal cook! I would have never had guessed that, but Reed is a culinary wizard. Not only with the main course and side dishes, but dessert too. As he explained to me, when you’re a single guy you either learn to cook or you eat crap. Janice also pointed out to me the extra points scored for having said skills. I took note and put these lessons to action later on. No longer my instructor, but still my teacher.

So I look back on this day, taking time to remember it each year, and a smile always comes to my face. I was very lucky to be part of Reed and Janice’s family. I am forever grateful to them, and thankful to count them as friends. Thinking of them I can’t help but think of how our lives are so strongly shaped by people we sometimes only see briefly, whose paths we crossed for a short time. Two hairs and a whisper of a touch refine us as humans, blending in the adjustments of our character. Each Thanksgiving, every day, Thank you, Reed & Janice.

8 thoughts on “Thanksgiving in Korea”

  1. Thanks Tim! This was a great read and I hold similar sentiments. First off, you will always be a part of our family. It was great to have you over to share this meal with us. I am thankful for many things, and the relationships I established at St. Bonaventure hold a special place for me. I have enjoyed bumping in to our ROTC team over the years and watching you all grow into such great people.

    Second, I too enjoyed the times I was able to serve Soldiers and families in the mess hall. I think most of the Soldiers appreciate it and enjoy the meal. I thought this especially true in Korea because we were all so far apart from our families in the US. We were family. The cooks always did a phenomenal job and it was a special day.

    Now that we are stationed in Canada, we get to “double dip” the holiday. We had our dinner last night and, I will admit, it was pretty good. You are welcome here any time and we look forward to the next time our paths cross.

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  2. Great story Tim, regardless if you’re a private, NCO, or an Officer being away in a foreign land for your first holiday season is a memorable experience to say the least. I’m sure most can relate because I can.

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  3. I think the Thanksgivings where we have expanded the definition of family are always my favorite. There’s just something about a table full of people who aren’t related by blood getting to share a meal that makes me really, really happy.

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