Saturday, December 13, 2003

How To Make A Soldier Cry

The upside is, it's over! The down side is, it's over! For months the lions share of our effort as the Unit Ministry Team at Camp Bonifas has been aimed at today. Approximately 8 weeks ago we generated an Operations Order (OPORD) and since issuing that OPORD to the battalion, we have been faced with planning everything about today down to the detail. Stress has become a way of life. As the day grew closer, today is just about all I thought about. So now it's over and I can breathe easier. On the other hand, today was such a success in the eyes of those that matter that I wish it could have lasted longer than it did. Today was the annual Pyong Hwa Orphanage Christmas Party. Fifty-seven kids ranging from 5 to 19 came to the JSA for a day of fun, music, food, and all out play. Here's how it went...

Several weeks ago, as part of the planning process, we collected the names and ages of the students from the orphanage and began to talk to every soldier, NCO and officer on post to see if they would sponsor a child for the party. In the end we had one US soldier and one ROK soldier sponsoring each child. Sponsoring a child meant buying them an age and gender appropriate gift, wrapping it, and then spending today with that child as much as possible. An eight hour adoption, if you will. Some soldiers adopted 3 or 4 kids. When they arrived today, we had the gym set up with huge inflatable games and ball throwing games. Outside we had 2 Humvee's ready to take the children on rides around camp. We also had one parked for them to climb all over and explore. There were 4 or 5 soldiers decked out in all their military gear with faces painted and guns and everything. Then there was a 50 caliber machine gun set up and an M240B machine gun set up for the kids to sit behind and pretend they were shooting. We also had our ambulance there in case of an emergency and also let the kids climb inside while the medics explained everything to them. So they got off the buses we had sent to pick them up, linked them up with their US and ROK soldier sponsors and then sent them into the gym to play and explore to their hearts content. The looks on their faces would melt your heart. I'm talking about the tough infantry studs playing with the kids. It was amazing.

After playtime, we marched them up to another building where they lined up and out came Santa Clause. They were pumped (the kids too). So each child, in turn, sat in Santa's lap, got their gifts from both soldiers, had their picture taken, and then moved out smartly to open and play with said gift. That was about the most fun. And to top that off, the Marine Corps gave us 57 of the most amazing gifts imaginable from "Toys for Tots" so each child received 3 presents. And man did they play and make a ton of noise (and the kids too). All during this Santa time, a brass ensemble from the 8th Army Band in Seoul were playing background Christmas music. It was perfect.

Next was dinner. We marched them down to the Dining Facility where they ate like kings. Fried chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, turkey, rice, mashed potatoes, gravy, rolls, fries, onion rings, salads, deserts, jello. You name it, they had it available and the kids had a wonderful meal sitting by their sponsors unable to communicate verbally but smiling ear to ear and loving each others company. One of the kids I sponsored was a 13 year old girl with a great sense of humor. We took turns at dinner pointing across the room at some imaginary distraction and then when the other turned their head we would steal something off their plate. At one point she didn't bother to distract me and just reached over with her fork and took the slice of turkey I had just cut.

As the children and their soldiers finished eating they trickled back up to the Santa room. When all had arrived, they put on a show for the soldiers that was amazing. They did about 7 folk dances in varying age groups. First a bunch of girls no more than 5 or 6 years old came out and did a traditional Korean fan dance that was amazing. You should have seen the soldiers watching them. These were love stricken men and they didn't even know it. You could see them smiling at their kids and waving as though they were their own. One of the dances was performed by two little girls around 7 years old. They were dressed in beautiful white dresses and did the most graceful dance I think I've ever seen. I remember watching them and being struck by their grace and femininity. It was beautiful and not a person in the room made a noise until they finished. I thought the windows would break for all the applause and whistling. Such tough infantry guys. After that we made an attempt to sing some carols with the kids, accompanied by the 8th Army Band, and then it was time to say good bye. The kids piled on their busses and the soldiers surrounded them. Arms and heads were moving in and out of the windows as each tried to remain with their kids at least one more second. Kisses and hugs were too numerous to count. The busses couldn't move because of the mass of soldiers pressed around them. I went to the door of one bus to tell the driver to move out slowly and a little girl in the font row jumped into my arms saying "Moksahnim" (pronounced Moke Sah Neem) which is a special reverent word for pastor. She was 6 years old. She hugged my neck and gave me a big kiss right on my mouth and then smiled at me. I melted.

Finally, the busses began to pull away with a hundred soldiers waving and blowing kisses to children they will probably never see again. No one wanted to turn and walk away. As the busses moved out a little boy leaned out the window and saluted. Every guy gasped and started laughing in order to keep from crying.

So I'm glad it's over. But if I could I would do it again right now.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Meals and Music Make Strange Bedfellows

Today I attended a luncheon and the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission camp in the JSA. It was hosted by a General from the Swiss Army and the food was magnificent. I guess the proper way to hold a formal lunch is to begin with cocktail hour at approximately 11am. Well, being a non drinker I asked for coffee. I think at that point I really insulted the guy behind the bar because he looked at me as if my face were made of stewed carrots and said, "This is cocktail time. We have no coffee!" Oh, pardon me! How dare I! Quickly and a tad less authoritatively, I asked for a glass of water. He glanced with disgust and handed me a glass of crystal clear water as if he were handing me a napkin full of ox droppings. After enjoy the conversation of a hotel manager from Australia, a Canadian Embassy worker, and a few other interesting people, we were invited into the meal. We wandered to whatever table and chair we felt comfortable with and sat down. At my table was my battalion commander, our signal officer, a young man and his little sister who are the children of a Swedish Army officer. Also there was the worlds quietest man who I'm fairly sure never brushes his hair and one other. He was a "Brew Meister". He too lacked hair care skills and needed dental work as badly as a cockney chocolatier. I say he was a brew meister because he attend a school in Munich for two years after working 6 years in the beer making business. This guy loved beer. In fact, he kind of smelled like he bathed in it. The first part of the meal was Swiss cheese melted in a little oven and then eaten hot with fruit and vegetables. Cauliflower and Swiss cheese is an unusual flavor combination to say the least. However, the taste was mild and quite enjoyable. The same cannot be said of the smell. As the cheese melted it began to emit a rather interesting odor. Maybe "interesting isn't the right word". I think rancid works a bit better. And not just a little. Overwhelming comes to mind. I noted, out loud, that the smell was unusual and the brew meister said, "That's not the cheese!" glancing down at his feet. Well, we all gave an uncomfortable chuckle at his little "joke" and it became as clear as my ox dropping water that he had the social skills of said ox. Notwithstanding some of the company and the smell it was a wonderful meal of various meats, fresh bread, fresh fruit, and some of the most incredible desserts ever made. The Swiss know how to put on a first class lunch. There was one chocolate dessert, a cream/cake thingy that I think I'd actually kill for. It was fabulous. After lunch we "retired" to the lounge for some of the best coffee this side of Seattle. Wow!

After returning to Camp Bonifas I made my way to my hooch for my compulsory Sunday afternoon nap. As I lay on my bed watching TV (actually just looking at a running screen) I began to think about chapel service this morning. I preached about music and why we sing and what it does for us. It's not always comfortable but it's always beneficial when we allow God to speak to us through music. I muted the TV, went to my computer, and began to play some music. I started looking for songs I didn't know and ran across one called "How Deep The Fathers Love For Us". I think I've listened to it a thousand times today. It starts like this...

How deep the Fathers love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

What a deal. Imagine being God's treasure! He must see something I don't cause when I look I see trash. He sees treasure. The more I think about it the more I am moved. I have to wonder if God brought those words to my attention because of how I looked at my friend the Brew Meister. Another part of that same song says...

Behold the Man upon the cross
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers

I mock Him when I look down on those made in His image. To think I am better than anyone belies a belief that some parts of God's image are better than others. How sad to think such a thing. AW Tozer said, "The Church [in this case me] has surrendered her once lofty concept of God and has substituted it for one so low, so ignoble, as to be utterly unworthy of thinking, worshipping men."

My new little song friend ends with...

I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

So I preached about music and singing this morning and ended today singing alone in my room. Not trying to be rather spiritual but just imagining that simple song as being the sound of Christ's work for me, and for those that reflect his image better than I ever will.

Saturday, October 25, 2003

All good things...

Tina left today! Welcome, Silence my old friend! Come on in Lonliness! Make yourselves at home.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Yin, Yang, and the Zen of Dental Agony

Things always seem to come in pairs, often opposite pairs. Black and and cold...Hope & Crosby. So it was with Tina's visit to Korea. But the problem actually began about a week before she arrived. My tooth began to ache slightly. No real pain just a dull ache. So I figured in my own logical way that I'd just take some motrin and then see the dentist after she left. Good plan. NOT! As the days wore on it began hurting a bit more so I upped the dosage of motrin. Finally I decided I should go get with the PA and see if he could hook me up with something a bit more powerful. He did just that and the Tylenol with Codeine coupleled with the topical lidocaine for more immediate relief worked pretty well . For a while. Then Tina and I headed to Seoul for our stay at the Dragon Hill and the tooth began to hurt more and more. Finally I couldn't take it any more and one morning I went on emergency dental sick call and they performed a root canal. That did the trick. We were able to enjoy the rest of our time in Seoul with only a bit of post dental surgery pain. Problem was that the pain didn't loose momentum. In fact it got worse. So back at Camp Bonifas 3 days later I was in such pain that I took about 1000mg of motrin. That did nothing so I took some codeine. Still no effect. The pain continued to grow. But this was not ordinary pain. If you've never had real tooth pain the only way you'll understand my agony would be to slowly push a 16 penny nail through your face and slowly pull it out the other side. Had it not been for Tina's quick thinking by hiding my Leatherman pocket tool, I would have pulled my own tooth without hesitation. I tired with my fingers but teeth are fairly slippery I guess because I couldn't get a grip on it enough to pull it. Finally Tina had enough of my pain and she walked down to the Doc's room around 10 PM to see if he could help. He asked me a few questions to which I answered, "Can you just remove my face please?" So he gave me the wonder drug...valium. That ended the pain and put me to sleep. It was beautiful and I didn't wake up until a full 20 minutes later in agonizing pain. So, pumped up on Motrin, Tylenol, Codeine, and Valium and still experience the worst pain short of giving birth to a horse through your nose I was driven 1 hour to the hospital in Yongsan where they gave me a "nerve block". Basically they temporarily disabled the nerve to the right side of my face. It was heaven. No pain at all. In fact no feeling at all. And no control at all. But man did I sleep well. So I returned to Camp Bonifas and then the next morning went back to Yongsan to the dentist who gave me another root canal. In the end, all is well and I have a couple of followup appointments later in the month to kind finish stuff off. In the middle of a wonderful visit we went on a blind date with misery, and she ordered the lobster.

Saturday, October 18, 2003

A Week On The Hill

Tina and I spent the last 4 days at the Dragon Hill Lodge in Yongsan. It was a great time. The room was beautiful and because I am such a nice and thoughtful individual I had flowers sent up to the room on our first day there. We spent the first day walking around Itaewan shopping. I took Tina to the little store where I had ordered a dress made for her and they had the wrong color trim so they redid it and we had to go back later in the week. As we walked around This guy coerced us into his store and we ended up ordering a hand made suit. Man, it fits like a hand made suit. During the week we shopped at various outdoor markets such as Insadong and Myongdong, and were able to find toys and clothing and just about anything in the world. We visited a huge centuries old palace and watched the changing of the royal imperial well dressed guard where this one guy beats the daylights out of a drum the size of Rhode Island. It was pretty cool cause you just don't see guys usually dressed like that. All in all our week there was a wonderful treat. We ate all kinds of food. I was very proud of Tina as she actually tried Kimchi and a host of other dishes made out of unknown creatures and plants. Again, it is so good to have her here. I wish she could stay till sometime around June.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

Comfort from Home

Unless you've been plunged into a strange place away from everything and everyone you know and are comfortable with you cannot possibly know the loneliness and isolation that a place like Camp Bonifas represents. Despite being around plenty of people, it is amazing how lonely one can feel in such circumstances. It was that context into which Tina broke. I would be hard pressed to describe how my heart leapt at the first site of her in the airport. I felt like I was in high school again. It was simply incredible and she looks wonderful. Not unlike the comforting smell of a favorite shirt or a warm fire at Grandpa's house. It feels comfortable to look at her again. Her hand in mine is a perfect fit. And besides all that, I married a hottie! Not much more to say. It's good to have my friend with me again.

Sunday, August 31, 2003

A Rat with a Gun

It’s called Lotte (pronounced Lowtay) World. And, brother, it is jammed with fun. If I had to describe it I would say it is a theme park that seems to exist in that ethereal place where Knott’s Berry Farm® meets K-Mart®. I recently spent much of a day playing in this wonderland with several of the soldiers from my battalion as part of a 3-day retreat away from our home/work place. Lotte World screams to be commented on.

We arrived via subway shortly after the park opened. In order to get from the subway station to the actual park, one must possess a very sensitive global positioning system, an extremely acute sense of direction, or a Korean. Without one or more of these things you don’t stand a chance of ever reaching your destination. The reason is that the entrance to Lotte World is buried deep in the bowels of Seoul at the far end of an apparently endless cavern. In order to get the proper picture of the situation one must not envision a cave entering the side of a lonely mountain. Instead, one must envision a cave entering the side of a lonely mountain lined with all manner of vendors, or as I prefer to call them, crap peddlers. Man, they will sell you anything and everything. And the thing is that one shop will be stocked with cell phones and accessories and the very next shop will be stocked with more cell phones and accessories. After approximately 135,287 cell phone shops you arrive at the first of the 34,951 shoe stores followed immediately by the 587,012 cheesy dress sellers. And these do not line a single tunnel. Instead, you must navigate through a labyrinth that would make the Minotaur jealous. Once you have successfully moved through this maze of vendors, you come at last to the gates of nirvana … Lotte World.

The first thing one notices about Lotte World is its mascot. It is written into the World Theme Park Charter of 1274 that all amusement parks must have a mascot. Disneyland has Mickey Mouse. Six Flags has Bugs Bunny. Lotte World has…well, I’m not sure what that thing is. My compatriots and I stood for several moments discussing the species of the Lotte World mascot. Some said it was a squirrel…but where’s the big bushy tail? Some said it must be a raccoon…but what’s with those teeth? Still others thought it has got to be a chipmunk…come on, look at those eyes! All anyone knows for sure is that it belongs to the class mammalia and the subclass eutheria. I mean, really, a pongo pygmaeus would know that much! With the identity of the mascot’s species still undecided, and not knowing its name (since we don’t read Hongul) we braved entering the park not knowing what to expect.

As it turns out, Lotte World has much about it we could not ascertain from mere empirical observation. This held true in regards to the actual theme of this theme park. For the most part it was a smattering of 17th century Caribbean piracy infused with touches of medieval baroque, some Bavarian castly stuff, a little 23rd century futuristic technothings, some good old down home home flavor, and perhaps a dab of disco. This should give the reader a very vague sense of what Lotte World is all about to the casual observer, because frankly, having been there in person I still have only a very vague sense of what Lotte World is all about.

Being an amusement park, Lotte World had amusements. Adrenaline producing rides that leave amusee in a state of euphoria and with a deep-seated desire for more. One ride spun like a merry-go-round while swinging on a pendulum while another ride lifted the rider to dizzying heights only to let go and offer a brief free fall. But the ride that bears the most comment had to be the Sinbad ride. This is one of those indoor boat rides that take you into a dark tunnel where you slowly work your way through scenes of horror and fright, except on this ride they emphasized the “slowly” and seriously downplayed the “horror and fright”. The designers of this ride must have lived with the conviction that to drag riders at an almost imperceptibly slow pace past a hundred zillion plastic skeletons yammering chilling words in a strange tongue would produce maximum scarage. Can I just say here that this was not the case? In reality what this ride does is eat 20 minutes of your life. Riders of several nationalities could be overheard saying, “Man, I thought that would never end!”

Lunchtime rolled around and we headed for the food court. Here our Americanness came fully to bear. When coupled together, the words “food court” indicate certain things to the westerner. Things like pizzas, tacos, slushies, lemonade, pretzels, and hoagies. The producers of Lotte World have a different idea of what a “food court” is and it involves a choice of Korean food or Japanese food! So let’s see…hmmm…do I want the fire hot rice with meat of unknown origin or the raw fish and seaweed pate? I’ll just interject at this point that dinner never tasted so good!

In the heart of Lotte World sits an indoor ice rink complete with every Eric Hayden wannabe on the Korean peninsula. Adjacent to the ice rink is a state of the art bowling alley complete with dimly lit, smoke filled video game arcade. Next to the bowling alley is probably the most disturbing part of Lotte World. It is disturbing not only because of what it is but because of the several posters throughout the park informing guests of its presence and bidding them come and enjoy this most exciting of activities. The posters feature the indeterminate rodentish mascot of Lotte World pointing with one hand in the direction of said attraction and with the other hand brandishing a Glock 9mm. That’s right, Lotte World, family oriented theme-like amusement park has a shooting range. All one has to do is go up, pay a small fee and “rent” any of a number of weapons ranging from the kid friendly .22 caliber pistol to the Dirty Harry .44 caliber special. Approximately 15 weapons representing most major gun makers and most of the “popular” calibers are available to John Q. Citizen. Roughly $35 buys you 10 rounds and a human silhouette target. Fun, fun, fun.

So, as evening approached we departed Lotte World, and made our way out into the shop maze. We arrived back at the subway station approximately 8 hours later and headed home to ponder the events of the day. And the next time I see a Racchipmunsquirrel I’ll remember Lotte World and smile.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Notional Caffeine

There are many events in the military that you will never see in the civilian world, such as 200 people wearing identical clothes and no one being embarrassed. “Oh great, look he’s wearing camouflage, too. How embarrassing!” But more interesting than common clothing is the “alert”. This is basically notional and controlled panic. It is when everyone in a given unit or installation takes a day at least and physically practices what to do in a given contingency. That contingency could be a terrorist attack or a plane crash or a civil emergency of some sort. Last week we had what is called a NEO alert. While it may seem difficult to believe, the Army has devised a plan for saying Noncombatant Evacuation Operation. And last weeks exercise gave everyone lots of opportunities to say “NEO”. Another interesting thing about emergency situations in the military is that they never take place right after lunch. Usually, Army style emergencies occur within mere moments of attaining REM sleep. Our NEO exercise was no exception.

Bright and early the horns of hell sounded. To the seasoned Camp Bonifas dweller this sound means, “Get up and move quickly to your place of duty!” However, to those of us new to this place, the early morning siren meant our alarms were probably going off and if we would just hit it hard enough it would stop. But it didn’t and approximately 23 minutes later I found myself in a briefing indicating that the North Koreans had just begun to move south and we were in imminent danger. This was of course notional but it was sobering nonetheless. The entire camp was to be evacuated along with the DMZ Village of Tae Song Dong. Each section and platoon had a very distinct task that had been planned and briefed months and years in advance. The plan was in effect, all that was required was to execute it.

My role in this alert was to go through the motions like everyone else and do notionally what I would do actually were there to be an actual attack. After the meeting, I headed back to my office area and linked up with my assistant and a cup of coffee. Our vehicle was already loaded with our rucksacks, duffle bags, religious supplies and plenty of cold sodas. The idea is to be able to survive 30 to 60 days without resupply. If required we may have been able to pull it off, too, except for the fact that we had only one meal each. So while 30 to 60 days may have been something of a stretch, I truly believe we could have gone say, 30 to sixty minutes. Had this been a real alert and not just an exercise, we probably would have been over run by North Koreans quicker than you could say, “Did you start a pot of coffee?” Also we would have actually done some ministry. But since it was notional and since it is difficult, based on the nature of the business, to do notional ministry, we just kind of hung out for a while and talked about what we would be doing in different circumstances. After the ups and downs of imaginary ministry, we got the word that some or other event had notionally taken place that would normally precipitate a move for us. So we moved. We grabbed our coffee, jumped in the van, and drove to the aid station, which if the roads are clear and the weather is accommodating is approximately 28 seconds from my office. Quickly we rushed inside, pretending to be reacting to emergency situations, and in our most simulated voice of panic said, “Where’s the coffee?” The aid station is an ideal place for me during this kind of a situation because it is where one would normally find victims of a war situation and those looking for coffee. So we fit right in.

After hanging with the docs for a while, again a code word rang out over the radio indicating that we were to move to a central point where everyone left on camp would evacuate after the simulated destruction of all assets remaining behind. Here it is a good thing this was notional because had the Angry Pink Hoards come rushing up the road they would have found us standing around, sipping the last vestiges of the wonder brew and complementing ourselves as to how well this thing was notionally going. Finally the convoy formed up and we headed out along the preplanned escape route.

Just as we were preparing to cross the bridge to freedom it was notionally destroyed, and I notionally soiled my notional self. Plan B went quickly into effect and we all headed down to a predesignated point on the bank of the river. Once there, all were accounted for and we began to cross the river to safety. This was not notional. That is to say, we did not actually pretend to notionally cross the river. In other words, our crossifying was unnotionalized. We got in rubber rafts and really went over the river after coming through the woods. I got a little wet, about up to mid thigh. This would include my feet, which were in boots at the time, which happened to be filled with water. For the soldier in the US Army, having wet boots and feet is not really a problem. The difficulty comes during the slow, painful drying process. As the water slowly seeps out of the boot the pants stick to the legs, the leather boots begin to constrict ever so slightly, and madness begins. One can loose ones mind within minutes due to the drying itch. This is when, as a result of the clothing drying slowly, all skin begins to itch. Victims become irrational as they scratch and loose all modesty as they try to strip off all damp items. At least I do.

Once across the river, approximately 7 hours after it began at way-too-early o’clock, the exercise ended. We loaded busses strategically filled with sleep dust and tried desperately to stay awake for the long ride back over the Imjin River to Camp Bonifas. This was no easy task as the ride took approximately 15 minutes. I’m still not sure how we took 6 hours to go 15 minutes, but we managed swimmingly. Once back on Camp Bonifas the day was over…or so I thought (insert diabolical laughter and thunder clap here). The final part of the day was the ever-popular After Action Review. This is when all key leaders in the battalion sit around for about 12 hours and tell each other how well they did and what they thought of the exercise overall. This takes a very long time as each person complements every other person on what they saw during every phase of the operation from their perspective. It’s making me tired just thinking about it.

I need a cup of coffee.

Monday, August 04, 2003

The Heart and Seoul of Land Navigation

There are certain skills in which every soldier, regardless of Military Occupational Specialty (MOS), must be competent. Skills such as marksmanship with the M-16 or M-4 rifle, hand to hand fighting techniques, and the proper use of Brasso®. These are skills that are indispensable in a time of war. One soldier skill in particular, however, is of utmost importance ... land navigation or land nav. It is the ability to make one's way across unfamiliar terrain using only the most rudimentary tools ... a map and a compass. Knowing how to do this simple task can save a lost soldiers life.

This weekend my assistant and I escorted 22 newly assigned soldiers into Seoul, Korea for what we call Chaplain's Land Nav. The intent is to orient new soldiers to the terrain and culture so that they can find their way around the subways and alleys of this huge city. Chaplains Land Nav also serves to get them out of the barracks for a day and gives me an opportunity to interact with them in a casual setting and begin to build relationships that may one day assist them in to the Kingdom.

Our day began at the subway station near Yongsan, the Army base in Seoul, where we divided the soldiers into 6-man teams, gave them a map, explained how to utilize the subway, gave them a list of places they were required to find and sent them off on something of an urban scavenger hunt. As my team set out, I quickly assessed the situation, conferred with my compatriots, and considered that it was 11am and I had not had a cup of coffee. So bringing all my leadership talents to bear, I decided that the first order of business was to find Starbucks®. This decision would prove to be the deciding factor in the success of our day for when we arrived we did not find just any coffee shop. Instead we found five floors of java joy. Five beautiful floors dedicated to the worship of the great bean god. Five floors of caffeinated bliss. It was an awesome and delightful sight. Quickly I checked my map and discovered that regardless of where we were, I needed some Joe. Once inside our newly discovered Den of Delight I ordered a cup of black gold and waited in line to pay. When the attendant pointed to the register (she spoke very little English) I wondered if maybe my brew of ecstasy was to be served in a solid gold chalice. I had to pay 2750! Come on man, it's just a cup of coffee! As it turns out I was in Korea at the time so the price equated to about $2.50. That's a bit more reasonable, thank you.

After leaving Shangri-Liquid we headed out once again into the mean streets of Seoul. Approximately 15 million people live there and a good percentage of them sell shoes. I know this because as we made our way to our next point of interest we passed through what I like to call, "The never ending expanse of shoe sales in every conceivable style and color where they sell at least 15 million pairs of shoes none of which are very tasteful or look extremely comfortable." Finally we succeeded in passing through shoeland, worked our way through goldfishandotherdomesticaedwatercreatures land, and arrived safely at the Wholesale Toy Section of Seoul. We looked around for a while finding cool toys we claimed to be looking at for our children back home, and then headed out to stop number three ... lunch. To find lunch one must get back on the subway, stand among every resident of Seoul inside a space the size of a small family sedan, and wait until the tide of people wish to get off, where you hope to be deposited at your desired destination. Fortunately, we made it and headed to "lunch".

Lunch was to be found in an area of town called the Something Unpronounceable By the Western Tongue Market. In the SUBWTM you don't have to look very far to find something newly dead or something else wishing it was. We walked slowly around trying not to participate in our mephitic surroundings saying such intelligent things as, "Oh man, what is THAT?" and "Dude! Oh my gosh is that a pigs face?" It was in this context that we found a small place to eat. When the host saw that there were 6 of us he motioned in Korean for us to use the dining area upstairs. This nearly upset the apple cart. The window was open, the air conditioner was off, and there was a large fan ostensibly circulating the air. Actually it was pulling "fresh" air in from the market below and forcing it into the upstairs dining oven. Our waiter arrived, turned on the AC, and asked to take our order. We had no idea what the menu said so we pointed to the lovely pictures on the wall. In this we discovered that marketing is a global conspiracy with similar tactics around the world such as making pictures that look appetizing when in reality the dish portrayed bears little resemblance to any thing edible. That's not all true. My dish kind of looked like my picture and in the end was not all bad. It consisted of half a bowl of the worlds hottest rice topped with fresh cut vegetables and a raw egg that cooked immediately upon being stirred into the molten rice. Stirred together it makes a very delicious and very filling meal. A couple of my fellow travelers were not so fortunate with their picture vs. reality combinations. One of them pointed a picture labeled "meat" and actually didn't eat until we found a Burger King® several hours later. The other pointed to a picture labeled "Welsh Pancake". This would prove to be a misnomer entirely as it was nothing like a pancake and I can't imagine anyone eating it, let alone the God-fearing and peace-loving Welsh. It consisted of what we believed to be crab meat and vegetables fried into an unidentified, discolored gelatinous substance and topped with some kind of tentacles. That's right ... tentacles ... suckers and all. His immediate response was, "I don't even do sea food." Being the leader, I assured him no one I know had ever died eating that stuff, whatever it was. And with that he dove right in and spent approximately 1 hour eating everything but the tentacles (which weren't all that bad). Once we finished lunch we wandered back into the Market of Ex-Life and off to our next stop.

This time it was a modern mall with all the creature comforts. For a moment I could have sworn I was home except that everyone was short and speaking a foreign language. Also, the streets outside had to be empty because brother that place was packed. Koreans are probably one of the most gracious and friendly peoples in the world. But when you cram them all into one huge mall ... well, does "cacophony" mean anything to you? Across the street from Decibel Mall was a Buddhist temple built over 700 years ago. While not a large place, it was quite impressive. Surrounded by the noise of one of the world's largest cities, it was strangely peaceful. My assistant and I had to nearly tackle one of our guys about to step up onto a platform the Koreans were bowing in front of. Now, I'm not all that impressed with praying to stones, but I'm less impressed with getting the daylights beat out of me by angry old people for desecrating their religious sites. So with an international incident averted, we got back on the subway and headed into Yongsan. And together, as a group, with the kind of comeraderie one finds only in the military, we ate dinner at Taco Bell®.

Monday, July 28, 2003

A Place Of History

Every once in a while I find myself in a place or situation not of my design. Places like Germany when the iron curtain fell or western Louisiana when the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded. Yesterday was one of those places and situations.

Yesterday marked the 50th Anniversary of the Signing of the Armistice to end hostilities between North and South Korea and establish the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that still divides the Korean peninsula. A ceremony was held in Pan Mun Jom, a "village" that straddles the border between the two Koreas and serves as a symbolic conference center for continuing peace talks.

The day began with an insanely early sounding of my alarm clock at 0430. An overcast, drizzly day greeted me as I emerged from my hooch. The gloomy atmosphere was exacerbated by very real possibility of trouble. On everyone's minds were the rumors of orders from Kim Jong Il, president of North Korea, to attempt to disrupt the Armistice Commemoration at the Joint Security Area (JSA) in Pan Mun Jom. I linked up with my South Korean Assistant, went to the arms room to get him his 9mm pistol and we headed north.

This was to be my first drive through the DMZ. I expected something out of a war movie. However, aside from the fence on the south boundary of the DMZ, I saw only plush hills and green rice paddies. Still, I could not shake the twinge of fear that the KPA (the North Korean Army) might try something. As we passed the entrance to TaeSong Dong (Liberty Village), the only village inside the DMZ on the south side of the border, the rain soaked guards saluted until we rounded the next turn in the road. A short while later we pulled into PMJ and the JSA.

Again, I was pleasantly surprised by the modernity of this place on the border between hostile nations. Here and there were various monuments to those who had given their lives in the years since the Armistice. Most visible on the compound is the Sunken Garden, where a young South Korean soldier was killed by his North Korean "brothers" as they attempted to retrieve a Soviet defector who had rushed across the border to freedom. The two main buildings on the south are called Freedom House (the larger of the two) and Peace House. The exterior seemed to be made mostly of glass. Inside, the walls and floors were of polished granite, the chandeliers were crystal, the candelabras were silver and the chairs were leather. It was like seeing a 4 star hotel in downtown Tonopah, NV. Freedom House sits approximately 50 feet from the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) which is the actual border. Three small United Nations blue buildings sit on the border and serve as conference rooms allowing negotiators to sit at the same table while staying in their respective countries. Three North Korean guard towers stand in a line parallel to the border and about 30 feet north of it. To the west of Freedom House, south of the border, stands a large and colorful pagoda.

For this occasion, a very large white tent had been erected between the two main buildings to hold the commemoration ceremony. In attendance were 2500 Korean War veterans from many different countries, their families, countless press, more generals than should be allowed in one place at one time, and dignitaries from around the world including Henry Kissenger and Helen Clark, the Prime Minister of New Zealand. Many countries were represented such as The United States, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, South Korea and others.

The soldiers and officers of my battalion were tasked with security for the event. Thus we arrived very early, set up and waited. Finally, bus after bus began to arrive loaded with some of the greatest people on earth. As these heroes of old made their way onto the compound their faces were alive with wonder. You could tell by their expressions that many of them could not believe where they were. I stood at one corner of Freedom House and watched them pass by. I heard more than one comment that the last time they saw that area it was anything but green. Every so often one would approach me, noticing the cross on my hat, and give a brief account of their chaplain during the war, or mention that they have a son or uncle or brother who is or was a chaplain. Everywhere conversations were taking place as these honored vets stopped to talk to their younger brothers in arms. All had stories to tell, and all told them readily. With so many countries represented there were accents to spare and much of what was said to me I could not understand. However, I could understand their gestures and expressions and even though they mumbled or squeaked or prattled on in a dialect I could not make out, there was no mistaking...these men had been a part of something awesome and terrible and they are to be respected, even revered for it. One very elderly Korean gentleman approached me with outstretched hand and began speaking very quickly. I could not understand him, but as he spoke, staring into my eyes, I knew I was listening to someone important. I nodded respectfully without saying a word and he departed. A young man quickly approached me and told me the old man was a retired Korean general and he wanted to shake my hand. He wanted to shake my hand. Later I overheard an elderly American Veteran with very clear speech speaking to a group of young soldiers. He said, "Thank you boys for what you are doing." He couldn't know what it meant to those around him to hear that. My young Korean Assistant, who is no more that 20 years old, said to me as we watched a sea of old warriors flowing by, "I am glad for them to have fought for our freedom."

As the ceremony commenced the crowd disappeared. This allowed me to move through Freedom House and stand in front of Conference Row. On the other side of the border, the North has it's own building roughly analogous to our Freedom House. It's called Pan Mun Gak. During the entire day a lone sentry in dress uniform stood at the top of the steps facing us. To his left a small window was slightly ajar with an observer just inside. He, too, stayed there all day watching us through binoculars or a camera or a scope. Just watching. We were being watched from each of the guard towers as well. Cameras were positioned in strategic locations to monitor the goings on on the south side. We too have several cameras trained on them. Each side suspicious of the other.

As the ceremony in the tent proceeded, the activity behind Freedom House increased. The plan was to allow the vets to come out and look at Pan Mun Gak across the border and even enter T-2, the center building on Conference Row where they could cross into North Korea inside the building. This meant much stress, tension, and security. Soldiers were placed at the south corners of the three conference buildings with two more outside the south entrance of T-2 and still two more at the north entrance inside the building. The guards at the corners stood stone still, staring at the lone guard at Pan Mun Gak with one eye exposed from behind the cover of T-2. It was not a little eerie! Once the ceremony concluded, 2500 guests made their way to conference row. Four soldiers appeared on the roof of PMG to take a look at the crowd and have a smoke. Just inside Freedom House, a buffet was set up with world-class food for our very deserving veterans. The soldiers on the North could only watch and wish. Again, with a plate of food and a desire to see the inside of T-2, conversation flowed. Stories came easy. Everyone remembered. Somehow, I became the unofficial photographer for several vets and their families wanting a picture of them with PMG and it's lone sentry in the background to prove they were so close to North Korea. One gentleman was being pushed through the crowd in a wheelchair proudly holding a picture of himself taken in Korea 52 years before. He was a favorite with the photographers from around the world.

Finally the busses returned and picked up their passengers to head back to Seoul for another banquet and commemoration. As the compound slowly emptied I watched from the high point in the pagoda. I watched as hundreds of old soldiers hobbled and limped to their busses. Their sacrifices had secured freedom for South Korea and the world. In stark contrast to the real efforts and accomplishments of these great men, in the distance I could see Kijong Dong, aptly nicknamed "Propaganda Village". It is the only village in the DMZ north of the border. It has many high rises and seems to be a small metropolis in the middle of nowhere. In reality, Kijong Dong is a facade, literally. Fake buildings made to portend prosperity but only a shell of a village.

The Joint Security Area, the Demilitarized Zone, and the 50th Anniversary of the Signing of the Armistice to end hostilities between North and South Korea and establish the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that still divides the Korean peninsula. In the shadow of that place of history stood 2500 History Makers. Yesterday, I found myself in a place outside of my own design and I'm thankful.

Friday, July 18, 2003

Free Time

It's called S'ha gu, (pronounced ts ha goo) which when translated means "four balls". It is at once terrifying and awesome to behold, especially for the westerner unaccustomed to such things. Four balls, is neither a genetic defect, nor a venereal disease. It is a game. The playing field is a standard looking pool table except that there are no pockets and it only has four balls, thus the name. Two of the balls are white and two are red. The two white balls are the cue balls. The goal is for each player to attempt to hit the two red balls with his cue ball while not hitting his opponents cue ball. While this may sound simple enough it is not, unless you happen to be Korean. Then it becomes as easy as breathing. I'm not sure why this is, but it is. I know this because I decided to play a round with my Korean assistant, Corporal Park, and in about 30 seconds he had scored the required 5 points whereas I has only agreed to play.

Another Korean game that bears mention is Jok Koo. In Korean it's called Jok Koo. Basically it consists of 2 five man teams on a tennis court kicking a soccer ball over the net in a sort of amalgamation of soccer, tennis, and volleyball. As far as I know it has no rules or points. However, I think victory belongs to the team that can most sound like a bevy of cats being hurled around an empty gymnasium.

The Koreans are not the only ones here who enjoy sports. Just the other day, the American soldiers enjoyed an all day volleyball tournament. For me this was good way to meet many of the soldiers and officers in an informal setting. This was a good plan at first. However, as the day dragged on and the beer began to slowly disappear, it turned from volleyball to something that should be called, "I got it" as that is what every player would shout whenever the ball was within 100 feet of them. They seemed to run around the court in one big mass, kind of like an amoeba moving around a petrie dish. In the end I think they were just trying to hold each other up and just happening to strike the ball occaisionally.

Sports are very important here, both as an outlet for bored young men and as a diversion from the situation that surrounds us. More often than not, there is television nearby with ESPN on and everyone cheering at the outcome of the Men's All World Checker Championships that they just knew, having memorized every statistic since the Eisenhower administration, would be won by the farmboy from Iowa.

The Korean soldiers don't watch ESPN. They would much rather participate in their favorite indoor pastime. They call it Karaoke. They should call it, "How much you wanna bet I can rape this next song at the top of my lungs?"

So that's what we do with our free time sports and play sports. And for one such as I this is about as fun as darning my socks.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

The Trip

Sunday the 13th was a most difficult day. Got up, tied up some loose ends, loaded the family in the van, and headed for the airport in Alexandria, LA. After checking in, we went to lunch and while things may have seemed normal to those looking on, it was anything but. I took turns staring at each of the kids knowing I couldn't touch them again for 6 months. I glanced constantly at Tina thinking the same. We finished and headed back to the airport to wait. I was horrible saying goodbye. I held each of the kids one at a time, told them I loved them and kissed their little faces. By the time I got to Tina we were the only ones in the terminal, the flight was fixing to leave, and the security people, I guess, needed one more stooge to meet their, "take off your shoes and let us scan your underarms" quota. I got to be that stooge. That done, I blew kisses to everyone through the glass and boarded my plane. I had a window seat and was straining to see our car one last time, but didn't. However, God is good. Having worked at Ft. Polk for 2 and 1/2 years I have seen arial photos of it many times. About 7 or 8 minutes into the flight I began to see a few familiar landmarks and was able to decipher where we were. I actually say my house and neighborhood. That was nice.

The Houston Airport was a sea of people so I grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down to read "Tarzan of the Apes". I finished by the time we got to Osan Air Base. The next leg took us to Seattle where I met a chaplain friend of mine. I had a layover of several hours so we sat in the USO and drank coffee and talked shop. Finally I boarded and took off for Korea. The flight was about 10.5 hours and I couldn't sleep. I just kept reading. Whenever I stopped reading I couldn't help thinking about Tina and the kids and it was killing me so I just read alot and watched a couple of movies. Finally we landed on Tuesday the 15th having somehow bypassed Monday altogether.

I was met at the airport by a couple of captains from the JSA and they drove me to Seoul. That is one huge city! We spent most of the day inprocessing into the Korean theatre and finaly reached our hotel around 4pm. By that time I had been up for about 40 hours and things were either hysterical or frightening. I would say I wasn't hallucinating, but I may have been imagining it. The hotel was quite nice. It was a Korean hotel called the Itaewan Hotel which roughly translates, "Lodge of the Little People". The lobby seemed normal enough. Not so floors 2 and above. When I got off the elevator I almost hit my head on the ceiling. The elevator had more headspace than the actual ceiling in the hallway. I made my way to my room trying not to scalp myself, and found that the beds there were pretty close to the ground. In fact, they were on the ground. Also they were as hard as the ground. This does not make sleep very restful. I took a quick shower and my chest got a real good cleaning in what I believe was the hottest water known to mankind. Finally, I got to bed and slept like a baby for about an hour. Jet lag should be listed as a serious illness. The next morning I had pastries and coffee at the Dragon Hill Lodge on the post in Seoul. It it a beautiful 5 star hotel for military personnell and I think has high ceilings in the rooms. The day was spent doing paperwork and meeting people.

The Trip is finally over and now the work begins.

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

In The Beginning...

This is the first of what I hope to be many entries. However, it will be the last for several days, even weeks. I will be leaving for Korea on Sunday and will be Stationed there for 1 year and am not sure when I will be able to begin adding other entries. This blog will be my account of what I experience there. I hope to include pictures and other media when possible to help others understand the life of a soldier on or near the DMZ.