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February 06, 2006

When I was a somewhat younger man — pretty much still a kid, really — I decided on a military career.

There was no single reason for that decision; rather, it was the product of the cumulative influences on my life up to that point.

That my grandfather had been a soldier played no small part in my decision, but other factors encouraged the idea.

I enrolled in JROTC in high school — a move guaranteed to make me unpopular in the years following Vietnam. I went off to college to continue with ROTC, but dropped out due to my extreme dislike of going to school.

After a couple of years of working hum-drum jobs and trying (unsuccessfully) to get re-enthused about the idea of college, I finally did what I ought to have done in the first place: I enlisted in the Army. I did so with the full intent to make a career of it, to stay in uniform as long as Uncle Sam would have me.

Naturally, after basic training I was sent off to school. This, however, was language school, for which I seem to have had some real talent. After a year of Basic Korean (graduating with honors, thankyouverymuch) and nine more months of Military Intelligence training, I finally ended up at my first permanent duty station, the 102nd MI Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division, at Camp Hovey in Korea.

Duty in the 2nd ID was considered a hardship tour; unlike duty in Germany, soldiers couldn't bring their families, or cars, or indeed much of anything. Consequently, assignments were for only one year. I found that I enjoyed the duty there, though, and extended my tour by a year, and then by an additional six months. While in Korea, I reenlisted for an additional six years. I knew my decision to be a "lifer" was the right one. I could imagine no other life. I earned my Sergeant's stripes in Korea, as well.

Eventually, though, I wanted to come back stateside for a bit of a "civilization break" — not that Korea was uncivilized, but it just wasn't America. As I was making my plans to return, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Transfers were frozen... but my timing was good — the freeze began two weeks after I left the 102nd.

Being a Korean linguist in a unit (107th MI Bn, 7th ID) tasked for rapid deployment to Korea meant there was no chance I'd be sent to the Gulf. Indeed, when there was a call for volunteers with security clearances, we "Koreans" were expressly ordered not to volunteer. It's an odd thing, wanting to go to a war, but I think the motivation was the desire to put years of training to use in a real live mission. As it happened, though, only non-linguists (analysts and the like) were allowed to volunteer for Gulf War duty, and perhaps half a dozen of my friends went and returned.

Shortly after the ceasefire in Iraq, in the Spring of '91, our unit had what we referred to as a "Mandatory Fun" day — no motor pool duty, no training, just a day for troops to bring their families onto the post, to have a cookout, and to play a little softball.

I was pitching. I don't remember for sure, but I couldn't have been doing too well in the position. One batter got a big piece of one of my pitches, sending a line drive low and to my right. As I twisted and lunged to try to spear the ball with my gloved left hand, there was a small *-pop-*... and my Army career was over.

I had torn some ligaments and herniated a disk in my lower back, an injury which still plagues me with an occasional week in bed and with more frequent sciatic pain. It took a year and a half to figure it out, but from that day on I was no longer capable of fully functioning as a soldier. In a profession that demands physical fitness, I could no longer keep up. In September of '92, I was a civilian again.

Maybe if something had gone differently, maybe if I'd been held over in Korea for a few more months, maybe if I hadn't volunteered to pitch that day, maybe if I'd been a better pitcher, I'd have remained in the Army for the full 20 years.

Today would have been my retirement day.

I miss being in the Army; I think about it every day. I often wonder where I would be and what I'd be doing if I was still in the service. Some of the finest people I've ever been privileged to know were those with whom I served, and if I have one regret it's that I've kept in touch with so few of them.

Posted by Russ at 12:18 PM, February 6, 2006 in Personal Stuff & Soldiers/Vets

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Posted by: Ith at February 6, 2006 12:50 PM

Great post Russ. I lost touch with most of my Army friends as well. I think I'm going to drop a line right now to the one guy whose email address I still have.

Posted by: NE at February 8, 2006 07:12 PM

It has been my experience that, no matter whether one liked or disliked being in the military, it is an experience that one never forgets.

Posted by: Jim - PRS at February 9, 2006 04:46 AM

BTDT. In my case it was the Marines & a mitral valve prolapse that MEPS didn't want to pay for an echocardiogram to check out. They cleared me after just the stress test. The folks at MCRD San Diego were less than happy about that...

Posted by: Cybrludite at February 17, 2006 08:26 AM

I've read only a few of your "Blogs" which grasped my attention or I wouldn't be posting. If you could do it all again would you have wanted to learn a different language? (I'm debating...)

Posted by: Sonya at March 7, 2006 12:09 AM

The language I really wanted to learn was German, but the major reason I wanted to do so also held true for Korean: I could be stationed in a country where the language was spoken, and I'd have a chance to use it every day. So as it turned out, I was quite happy with Korean, even though I didn't really expect that would be my language.

Back then (it might be the same these days, I don't know) if you qualified for language school, you got to fill out a wish-list of languages. If the Army's needs coincided with your wishes, you could end up with the language you wanted. However, they also take into account your language aptitude test scores. If you barely passed the test, you don't get one of the harder languages like Chinese, Korean or Arabic. If you do very well on it, you don't get an easy language like Dutch or French.

Considering the job I had, I didn't have the opportunity to learn Japanese or Dutch, the only other languages in which I had any particular interest. The Army doesn't listen in on the conversations of our allies - we were too busy listening to the Russians (etc.) back then.

Of course, if a person is in a different job (public affairs, for instance) then there are opportunities to learn other languages.

I hope that helps.

Posted by: Russ at March 7, 2006 12:31 AM