My year with the Dragon, Part I

June has been an eventful month for me over the past dozen years or so. Facebook memories have popped up that reminded me just how life altering this month has been for me over the years. I was promoted to captain, got engaged to my wife, and reported to Fort Riley, KS to begin training as a military advisor in June of 2009. I also had 3 PCSs that fell in June. I began terminal leave in June 2011, and moved back to NY at that time. My first active duty assignment began on June 1, 2006.

Two of those permanent change of station movements were my assignment to Korea and my departure from Korea. Those happened on June 4, 2007 and June 3, 2008, 366 days that were the most impactful on my life out of any other year. Exploring Korea, broadening my mind and growing as a person, meeting people from so many different countries through rugby, and most importantly, being a platoon leader made for one busy year. The apprehension, excitement, fear, anger, enjoyment, and raw exhilaration of being 23 and half way across the globe are difficult to sum up in words. I’ll give it my best….

But first, let me address the 3 month gap between posts. I truly strive for consistency here, both in quality of my writing and in timeliness of postings. March and April brought on a brief spell of depression. I couldn’t bring myself to really do much of anything, and would then become frustrated over being so unproductive. Not just here but with simple things around the house. Everything was just too much to take on or not worth it. Apathy is the worst part of depression to me. It’s a black hole. I shook it off after a few weeks, but by then so much had piled up that it has been hard to find the energy to sit down and write, even as more and more topics came to mind. Lots of other things have been going on as well and it’s been very hard to block out some time to get back to writing. In short – life gets in the way. I apologize for the inconsistency and length between posts. I hope you’ll find this worth the wait.

Alright, so I spent one year in Korea. Originally my orders had me going to Osan Air Base, which was a really posh gig for an Army guy. In the end I spent one day at Osan. Through an odd quirk of timing I arrived at Osan about 13 months after those orders were cut. Following graduation/commissioning I was on temporary assignments for a year, mostly schools, and so when I got to Osan the 35th ADA brigade had just gone through a reorganization where the brigade HQ was under permanent orders to Korea (roughly 150 people) but the subordinate battalions were on one year rotations from their permanent homes stateside. So the majority of lieutenant slots within the brigade were not slots that I could be assigned to and there was no room for me in the HQ. The only air defense unit that I could go to was the Avenger battery up at Camp Casey which was recently moved from under the 35th ADA brigade to the 210th Fires brigade (that’s field artillery). After sorting out all this HR mess I was put back on a bus and sent up to Casey, 11 miles south of the DMZ.

My first week in Korea consisted of an 18 hour flight, being bused from Inchon airport to Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, the next day getting some briefings and inoculations for smallpox and anthrax (a 6 shot series), the next day getting bused a couple hours south to Osan, the next day being turned around and sent a few hours back north, and finally on day five reporting to my first line unit. One upside to my reassignment being so oddly done is that I got in under the radar and avoided a two week orientation to Area 1 (the US bases north of Seoul) which was at Camp Red Cloud if I remember correctly. So that saved me some annoyance and another temporary move while I lugged around a ton of baggage with me.

The rest of June and July were mostly spent getting to know the men in my platoon, building a relationship with my platoon sergeant, and spending the weekends exploring the local area around Camp Casey – Dongducheon- or partying in Seoul. One of the other LTs who was getting ready to leave showed some of us around and introduced me to his suit guy in Seoul. Jokeman was the kind of tailor who you needed to be introduced to by a current customer. His shop was in the basement of a nondescript building in Itaewon (the area right outside Yongsan Garrison). It gave you the feeling of knowing a great secret and being a trusted insider to walk down those stairs and into Jokeman’s place. He made fantastic ‘Armani’ suits and would always say that his dream was to be a great comedian like Jim Carey. That was kind of odd though as he was older than Jim Carey. Whenever you stopped in Jokeman gave you one free joke, and he had a map of the US hanging up so you could show him where you were from. Over 12 months I bought three suits, 2 cashmere overcoats, and 2 handmade scarves from Jokeman, because single LTs have more money than sense.

The single best thing I did during this time was spend time with my platoon sergeant. Clester Slater was a recently pinned sergeant first class in his first gig as a PSG and close to the end of his time in Korea. That combination would probably be terrible with most people, but Clester was the best NCO I ever worked with. The couple months I got to share with him leading our platoon had more of an impact on me as a young leader than the other 10 months I had with two other PSGs. There were a couple of really simple, seemingly insignificant things I did that helped build a good rapport. One was showing up for a uniform inspection. It wasn’t something I thought twice about doing along with the rest of the platoon, but Clester seemed surprised that I participated and that my uniform wasn’t all messed up. The other big thing in hindsight is that I spent time in the motor pool talking to my guys, having them show me around their Avengers, and just shooting the shit with Clester. We’d pass Mondays sitting in a conex (storage container) in the motor pool just talking. It allowed him to teach me about maintenance programs, all the paperwork, how to spot when someone was bullshitting you, and to watch over the platoon without micromanaging. Lots of fundamental knowledge was passed on from him this way. I was fortunate.

All these things seemed like no-brainers to me. I couldn’t think of what a PL would do otherwise, but I saw plenty who didn’t. The simple things made big impacts. That’s something I’ve kept with me over the years and I’m thankful that I learned it early on.

August came and brought with it being detailed out to a joint US/Korean exercise called Ulchi Focus Lens. About once a quarter there are big joint exercises that are largely computer simulations. These are the exercises the North Korean dictators are always complaining about and are currently suspended. It was pretty boring but I got to meet a couple more LTs that became friends. The extra special facet was that as soon as this three week exercise ended my battery was rolling out for a semi-annual gunnery exercise. So for three weeks straight I was working 12 on/12 off shifts and then had to take my platoon out for my first gunnery exercise. These are make or break kinds of things for a PL, and I was able to get released from the UFL exercise a couple days early so that I could at least make sure my platoon was prepared.

This gunnery was the first big field exercise I had with my platoon. I wanted to show that I was competent and I wanted to impress. This exercise was for our Avenger crews to qualify with the .50 cal machine guns and it took place at a Korean facility called Nightmare Range. The range itself was actually beautiful. The .50 cals are so powerful that you have to have a range complex that is several square kilometers in size. Nightmare Range was essentially a valley where you would shoot from one side to the other. If it wasn’t being used for military drills it could probably be a national park. The real nightmare was in getting there. We always drove at night to minimize the risks of mixing with civilian traffic. The roads we had to take were the craziest mountain roads I’ve ever seen. Blind turns, barely any light, sheer cliffs with 100 foot drops. Riding shotgun I could look out my door window and peer into a pitch black bottomless pit. But that meant the terrifying part was out of the way up front.

The rest of the range went off with no major snags. It was a good introduction to how field exercises in Korea went. Every time you went to the field a ‘Field Ma’ would show up and set up a tent and cook. It was kind of like having a food truck follow you out to work. Ma (short for ajumma) would make things like ham, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwiches and stocked tons of candy and cold drinks. The peach water and Mr. Big bars were my favorite, red bean popsicles are no joke either. As long as you were on Korean military land you had a Ma nearby. Luckily for me my unit never did much field training on American installations.

The fall rolled on and into winter. Camp Casey is on roughly the same line of latitude as western NY, so with the exception of the monsoon season in summer everything was pretty familiar. There were some trips to Busan, which entailed riding the bullet train and violating several command directives about local travel and curfew. Busan being at the very southern tip of the peninsula and a couple hours from any US installation meant that there was no way to go there without violating curfew. It also meant that you could feel like a normal person. The beaches of Busan were salvation. This was another circle of expat friends that I stumbled upon through mutual Army friends.

The expats in Korea were usually from English speaking countries who were in country to teach English. I met a lot through playing rugby, something new for me in Korea. I fell in love with the sport and its focus on hard competition and sportsmanship. Enjoying the game was only part of it, the post-match socials were what made a community. We sometimes hosted the Seoul Survivors up at Camp Casey, other times we would travel, and sometimes I’d whore it up with the Survivors. There was a women’s side named the Seoul Sisters too. Between the Survivors and the Sisters I made great friends that I still talk to today. They were always welcoming and happy to help me when I needed a place to crash. They were a collection of expats from the US, Canada, UK, Tonga, Australia, and New Zealand. Through my club, the 2ID Warriors RFC, I also met a South African who joined the Army.

The connections I made through rugby were stronger than those I made from work. Camaraderie in the Army is highly touted, but within my unit there were only a few guys I really hung out with. Even when we weren’t playing I’d pop down to Seoul for a few pints at Pub Scrooge’s and maybe head out to Hongdae, an off limits section of Seoul. There were holiday parties (Halloween and Christmas stand out!) and dodgeball tournaments. I learned about Aussie and Kiwi culture and gained a more international outlook on life. My rugby friends, both Army and expat, were who I spent most of my weekends with. They’re the friendships that helped to shape me, some of them are people I still look up to, a few made life altering changes on who I am. I owe a great debt to these people. If not for rugby I’m not sure I’d be quite the person I am today.

Well, this seems like a good place to take a break. I didn’t realize at the beginning that I’d have so much to write just about this one year. There’s more I could have included here, but maybe that’s best left for print instead of blog. If you haven’t already, check my post about my Thanksgiving in Korea. I hope this entertained you and gave some more insight into Army life by the DMZ. If there’s anything you’d like to know more about leave a comment or shoot me an email through the Contact page. Next week – Part 2, I promise.

Until we meet again….

2 thoughts on “My year with the Dragon, Part I”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s