My year with the Dragon, Part II

It’s a terribly muggy week here in WNY, which actually reminds me of monsoon season in Korea but without the daily thunderstorm. Today I decided to take the laptop outside and try writing in the backyard. Bowie is coming through the speakers, I’ve got a large pot of coffee, and a cigar to help me channel my inner Twain. There’s a tasty breeze coming through and the grackles are enjoying the feast I left for them. The sun is out. Nature is alive and singing along with “Rebel, Rebel”. Squirrels scamper across my fence and leap spastically into the large maple tree.

This may all seem a digression, but I talk about mental health a good deal here and these outside friends as I call them play a key role in helping maintain my mental health. I thought it would be fun to paint the scene for you all, but also to talk about how simple things build the foundation of how I keep myself sane. It must look as if I spend hours just staring at nothing but the dance of sparrows, grackles, starlings, blue jays, cardinals, squirrels, and my dogs reminds me of the good things that exist. The daily chore of refilling feeders is a source of calmness. It’s a chance to do something in a mindful way. A way to stay in touch with my Franciscan roots, and it connects me to the world around me. Birding has made me more aware of the ebbs and flows of nature. Migratory patterns bring new birds from time to time, learning about them helps to make me recognize the delicate balance of our world and the role we play. It is a way to practice the Stoic exercise of taking a view from above as well. So you see, this simple act is much more for me.

Alright, onto the task at hand. I don’t want to make this a totally linear story of my time in Korea. That would be tedious and boring. Going on a month to month play by play doesn’t tell a fun story, and I really wouldn’t be able to hit on every single thing either. If anything is certain, it is that I will forget things. Some mundane and some important, but the upside to our fallible memories is that you’ll have a reason to keep coming back here! So today I thought I would expand on what I wrote in Part 1 about expat friends and another funny story or two from Camp Casey.

Some of those friends who I’ve stayed in contact with reacted to Part 1 and reminded me of some unlikely stories of how we met. As I reflected on them it occurred to me that they are perfect examples of how crazy and adventurous that year was. So here they are for your reading pleasure.

Yongsan electronics market was a favorite place to go explore. It was essentially a large train station with a 9 story mall built above. This place summed up Korea perfectly. It wasn’t like an American mall with stores placed without thought on whatever floor. This was strictly electronics, even the furniture sold there was in many ways more electronics than couch. Each floor was dedicated to one or two different products with vendors arranged not in sequestered store fronts but with their individual floor spaces in an open environment. Imagine an American office building with a cube farm set up, but with each cube being about 20’x20’ of display cases where the clerks would compete openly with each other. You could wander around an entire floor and find essentially all the same things, but the fun was in the negotiation. Offering the advertised price was a sign of ignorance, everything was negotiable and it was expected that you would dicker for a better deal.

So one floor would be all digital cameras, another floor for computers, one for electronic furniture, one for musical instruments, one for TVs. There was a great movie theater as well, and a food court where I decided to try a dish called ‘Fire Chicken’. I shit you not that plate came out to the table on fire! The waiter warned me to order something else as this dish was even too spicy for many Koreans to eat it. Implied was that Americans couldn’t stand the spicy foods enjoyed by Koreans. Of course that made me double down. I finished about half that plate through pure stubbornness and popped Tums for a week.

After one trip to this magical place with my buddy and fellow PL, Remington, we were standing outside the front entrance talking about where to go next. There was a musical performance going on outside the station that we watched for a bit while trying to wait out some rain. Out of nowhere came Maria. She was still in her first month in Korea as an English teacher and was kind of lost. She asked to borrow one of our phones as her phone had died and she had no way of getting in touch with her friend that she was supposed to meet. Being an officer and a gentleman I happily obliged.

After finishing her call we all stood around for a bit just talking and watching the music and dancing troupe. As it turned out Maria was from the same city in Maryland as my college roommate Phil, who also happened to be my next door neighbor at Camp Casey. We were both still pretty new to Korea and having found a common bond we exchanged phone numbers and stayed in contact. Maria ended up hanging in similar social circles and played for the Seoul Sisters RFC. We ended up sharing many pints and stories throughout that year, all because of an off chance meeting.

There were plenty of other weguks (foreigners) on that plaza that Maria could have approached. Against the odds she came up to a guy just as out of place as her with a somewhat hometown connection. We still laugh about that from time to time, such an odd coincidence that led to a friendship formed over rugby and the shared adventure of being so far from home.

Now if that was the strangest story of making a friend in Korea it wouldn’t be a surprise. Life has a magnificent sense of humor though.

Part 1 mentions Pub Scrooges. It was where the Seoul Survivors hung out and had post-match socials. It became a regular haunt for me whether I was down in Seoul with friends from Camp Casey or if I just went down on my own. It was a place I knew I’d find friends to share a pint with and leave Army life behind. One night at Scrooges, as I was out doing what most 23 year old guys do, I was chatting with a beautiful baby (mandatory Swingers reference) and getting along better than I usually did. I was sitting at a long table when someone tapped my shoulder. Turning around to face the guy sitting behind me, I was told ‘Hey, she wants to talk to you.” He was pointing to another woman opposite him who was sitting on the bench that lined the back wall. Also quite lovely, I was stunned at my good luck that night.

Unsure how to handle this I tried to gracefully excuse myself from the conversation I was in the middle of so that I could talk to this other girl while not turning off the first girl. Without even introducing herself girl #2 said “Did you go to Bonas?” I was stunned at this and looked down at my chest to see if I had been wearing a SBU shirt. Confirming I wasn’t I looked back up and said that I did and asked how she guessed. Turns out Amanda recognized me from Bonas and told me that we had actually met at a townhouse party a couple years ago. Now Bonas had about 2,200 students while I was there, my graduating class numbered around 600. Somehow Amanda, who was also a 2006 grad, was sitting at a rugby pub less than 10 feet from me, 6,600 miles away from where we first met. I vaguely remembered the party and apologized for my hazy (drunken) memory. Finding another Bonnie so far from home I forgot all about the girl I had been talking to and joined Amanda’s table.

We talked over a few pints, retracing our Bonas connections and laughed a lot over how strange it was that we ran into each other. Seoul is similar in size to NYC, so on top of the long odds of us both being in Korea was the extra layer of being in the same pub that night. Well, turns out Amanda was there because she too was a Seoul Sister and had played rugby at Bonas. People often say it’s a small world, this certainly takes the cake. It also shows how the connections we make and circles we hang out in follow us everywhere. If not for rugby neither of us would have been there that night. If not for a few mutual friends at a small university in middle-of-nowhere, NY Amanda would have never recognized me and we might have never talked to each other in spite of frequently being at Scrooges.

I think about these friendships now and then and it still amazes me. I’ve not seen either Maria or Amanda since leaving Korea, but we’ve stayed in contact through the miracle of Facebook. Say what you will about StalkerBook, it has served me well in staying connected to people that I’ve met in so many places. Staying in loose contact with those friends from Korea has made the experience so much better. It’s made these people friends for life rather than friends for a year who become memories you sometimes think of. I’m so grateful for these experiences. There are plenty of bad times from my service, remembering these good things makes the bad times worth it. Without them I would focus on all the negative memories and emotions, which would suck me into an abyss of anger. It’s easy to feel like those years were wasted and pointless when I watch the news. Looking back on the friends made and good times shared is just as important as feeding my outside friends. It lets me know that my life has been well lived and that more adventures remain. It keeps me hopeful and breaks the grip of despair that creeps into my mind. Living in the past can be deadly, showing gratitude for your past can help you to move forward with optimism of great things to come.

You were promised a funny story too. How about the time I nearly caught a beating for being gay (spoiler, I’m not).

On another outing with Remington we went exploring Uijongbu. Only about 30 minutes from Camp Casey, Uijongbu is a medium sized city that offered some of the escape that Seoul did but with half the train ride, so you could do it and get back to Casey before curfew. We weren’t out to party though, we went to check out some of the open air fish markets and the underground mall. Remington bought a bunch of fish and squid (nasty), I found a shirt that screamed 80’s hair metal to me and had to buy it. This thing was black with gold splashed around, shiny, and a weird texture that was a cross between silk and rubber. It was just the kind of thing I needed for my next Poison concert. Happy with our finds we headed back to Casey and decided to head out to the Ville that night.

Of course I wore the shirt!

Hitting up a couple of juicy bars in the Ville always carried an element of danger. They were dirty, seedy places where trouble found you. Who wouldn’t love it? We were at the Mustang Club and a group of juicy girls walked up from behind me, one saying ‘hello’ by giving me a reach around. Taken off guard I jumped, spun around, and let juicy know that I wasn’t interested. They hung around for a while though because…… they loved my shirt. They kept feeling my shirt and started call me Snake Man (I still call it the Snake Man shirt) and put in a pretty strong effort to get us to buy their nights – the prostitution part works by ‘buying the night’ or paying the club owner for the rest of the girl’s shift to compensate for lost beverage sales – but we wanted none of that. The girls went away after a bit and we went back to shooting the shit over our beers.

Not too long after this four guys who were wasted and stumbling approached us. One put his finger in my chest and started rambling about how he hate ‘our kind’. He said something to the effect of ‘what are you two, the kind that stays silent but likes to flaunt it (being gay) in everyone’s faces’. We knew there wasn’t a way to talk ourselves out of this. Like I said, trouble finds you.

When we walked into the Mustang that night we saw a few of the NCOs from our battery in the back. As we were being surrounded at the bar I looked over to their table and saw they were watching, so I waved. Six more guys from our battery walked over, all of equal or greater size than those who were looking to start some shit. G, who was 6 foot and an easy 270 pounds of muscle and gut, tapped on the shoulder of the guy who had been accosting me, looked down on him, and simply asked if there was any trouble. As these guys realized they were now outnumbered and surrounded they slinked away and trouble was avoided. Remington and I happily bought drinks for our NCOs the rest of the night. Without them we wouldn’t have been able to get out of that without a beating and probably a shitload of trouble with the MPs, something that could have easily ended our careers even though we didn’t do anything.

So that’s how close I came to getting beat for being gay. All’s well that ends well, right? What I’d say about that now is that it was a lesson in empathy. It was a terrifying insight into the bullshit that gay men still face. Sometimes you truly need to be put into such a situation to grow as a person. Anyone who doesn’t understand why Gay Pride is celebrated needs to only be in my shoes that night to have their eyes opened. Mine sure were.

 

When I started this last Saturday I didn’t plan for such a multi-part story. I’ve only started to scratch the surface of this year in Korea. Looks like we’ll have at least a Part III and maybe a Part IV. Who else is excited!? If you’re confused at all about the title I’ve chosen for this series check out this video. It’s totally NSFW but in a lot of ways sums up being stationed at Camp Casey. Just imagine the dragon is USFK.

Until we meet again…

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….