My year with the Dragon, Part IV

Alright, let’s wrap up this series of posts focused on my time in Korea. This has been a difficult series as there are so many things I could include, but at the same time I don’t want this to be an incoherent ramble. I also don’t want this to come off as a stroll down memory lane with rose tinted glasses. I’ve mostly written about some good experiences and the posts have had a mostly positive tone. Well, today I’ll bring the dreary, the bored, the dark……  Aren’t you excited now?

Really though, it’s important to highlight these things. I’m sure some people have read the previous three parts and wondered why I didn’t stay in Korea. I certainly had the opportunity to volunteer for another one or two years, and it was tempting. So I’ll explain that decision today as well. If we are to dissect this we will need to look at two main points – expat life, and honor.

The expat life was pretty amazing. That much should be clear from what I’ve already written. It was also exhausting, often lonely, and terminally temporary. The pace at which I was living started to wear me down by month 10 and by month 11, I was losing perspective. After months of living like this and thinking it was just the greatest way to live I began to see the murky cheerlessness of expat life. The pattern of transience which kept gifting you new friends and then taking others away. The abject lonesomeness of being a LT at Camp Casey with little or no chance of having any kind of meaningful relationship when the people whose company I enjoyed were people I only saw on the weekends (with a few exceptions). If I stayed past my 12 months the few friends still at Camp Casey would also leave. I would be like the old guy hanging around college bars long past his time.

I also started to examine the life of my friends who had been in Korea for a few years but knew that they weren’t going to be there permanently. It was an odd sort of limbo. You are in a semi-permanent state of life. You start building a medium-term life where you want to create some more comforts, you accumulate more things, you establish relationships, but the whole time you know that these things cannot all be taken with you, the relationships won’t last so you don’t invest too much into them, and the comforts are still only temporary. You want to build something more than just a short-term life but you know that you’ll only get so much out of it. This quasi-permanence and superficiality wasn’t how I wanted to start my adult life, especially after spending my first year out of college moving 6 times from one temporary duty to another. I was ready to start something more meaningful.

When I think over all the people I met and the oddity of this life one example stands out among all others. I ended up at a Halloween party that my rugby friends in Seoul were going to. It was at this strangely western style two story house in a dank corner of Itaewon. I assumed it was just another English teacher’s home. It looked so much like the crumby apartment houses that I’d go to for a house party at St. Bonas. Nasty carpets, filthy bathrooms, mishmash of furniture, tons of beer and booze, and it was all topped off with the festive lighting and fog machines that Halloween brings out. I was stunned to find out the guy who lived there was a major stationed at Yongsan Garrison. This guy was running around in a bedsheet, laughing the kind of obnoxious laughs of someone who got too drunk too early. A squirrelly kind of man, he reminded me of Marlon Brando’s character in Apocalypse Now. Lost in hubris, living a hedonistic fantasy. I was curious and horrified at the same time. This was not a future I wanted for myself. Mid-30’s, single, living like I did at 21. I may have been too harsh in my judgement, I probably shouldn’t have made a judgement at all other than to know I didn’t want to be him. I enjoyed my night and drank a lot of his beer. So it goes.

When people ask me what Korea was like I usually give a short answer – I loved the weekends and hated the weeks. This was 2007 – 2008. The Army’s priorities were Iraq, Afghanistan (sometimes), followed by Korea. Trying to keep vehicles maintained and working was a daily battle. This made any training we conducted far more difficult than it should have been. Nothing went smoothly. The monotony of garrison life would drag on, the same struggle day after day. Sometimes this would be broken up when the battery would be on ‘red phase’. Each month some units would be designated to take care of garrison duties, so regular training ceased while a portion of your soldiers would be tasked out to do things like guard the ammunition holding area (AHA) or for gate guard duty. I’d have to go out on courtesy patrols of the Ville some nights. That meant that some weekends were used up having to stay local and at night put on a uniform and walk around the Ville, checking out all the juicy bars. The point was to provide a soft deterrent to soldiers getting out of control. My battery was in this red phase in December and in order to give the soldiers a break on Christmas the PSGs, PLs, first sergeant, and battery commander rotated to cover the AHA duty, which is a 24 hour thing. The LTs got stuck with the overnight shift, so Christmas night 2007 was spent with the other PLs sitting around ‘guarding’ a large stockpile of ammo.

A handful of units took their work seriously but many people looked at Korea as a vacation from the real Army.  This leads us to the part about honor. An ugly truth that many people would rather ignore is that people were hiding out in Korea, dodging deployment. Many were open about it, NCOs and officers. So how does a young LT keep motivated and keep his soldiers motivated when so many other ‘leaders’ are so brashly open about how they are in Korea to avoid going to Iraq or Afghanistan? It was a sick sort of bragging. Laughing about how they’re pulling one over on the Army by staying in Korea, collecting extra pay allowances and parting up, and all the time they’re just hiding while other men and women are, at that time, going on their third, fourth, and even fifth deployments. The combat dodgers infuriated me. Being around them and having to work with them made me sick. Having to maintain a professional front and not undermine them while they didn’t deserve an ounce of respect was intolerable.

By the end I had become so jaded and cynical that I couldn’t recognize myself. My drinking was out of control, but I couldn’t think of any other way to cope with anger from work and the despairing loneliness I felt each night. The Neil Diamond song ‘Captain of a Shipwreck’ became a nightly theme song to belt out in a drunken haze. In many ways I was a wreck myself. I needed change.

Talking about the combat dodgers and my own future with my friend Paul was the single  most important factor in my decision to leave Korea instead of staying for another year. Paul’s view on it was that it’s all well and fine for someone to want to spend a second year, get experience in another position and soak up all you can from the uniqueness of being in Korea. But for someone to do it when their right shoulder was still bare was nothing but cowardice (right shoulders are where combat patches are worn). This wouldn’t be the last time I would consult Paul on matters of career decisions. I made up my mind that I could not stay in Korea and maintain my honor. As much as I loved the country, as much potential as there was for a new assignment in-country, staying another year just was not something I could do without turning my back on my values. A life changing decision in many ways, but I still think this was the right thing to do.

Looking back now there are many things I miss and many I do not. I’m grateful for the experience of living in such a foreign country, experiencing a culture so different from what I grew up in. The unbridled adventure is something to cherish. If I could have any of the things I had in Korea I would want the sense of community, the sense of belonging, that I got from my circle of friends. And a goddamned Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Is that so much to ask for?

Until we meet again.

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