Stoned in Korea

Korean Statues

Today’s Korea is a very different place from the peninsula I was first stationed in the late 1980’s. It was not uncommon to see donkeys pulling wooden carts through the narrow dirt streets. Folks still huddled around charcoal powered space heaters for warmth in public spaces. Although the country was progressing rapidly towards its place as one of the world’s most modern and technologically advanced nations at that time, there were still reminders of the more traditional ways at every turn.
I worked in the public affairs office at Osan Air Base. The town just outside the main gate is called Seung Ton City, or Seung Ton Shi. One of the primary functions of this office was to act as a liaison between the Korean government, media, business leaders and community at large. Needless to say, because of the nature of our work, there was a never ending stream of Korean citizens in and out of that office. From the moment we opened the doors, to the end of our duty day, I remember high ranking Korean military officers, chamber of commerce members, government officials and, once, even a big time movie director, parading through.
The majority of the Korean people we dealt with on a daily basis were amongst the most highly educated, especially this far from Seoul. (The distance was much further in these days as the train and subway lines were not nearly as expansive. The only way to reach Seoul in 1989 was via a single bus line — if I remember correctly — to the Nambu terminal, and there was nowhere near the abundance of automobiles and highways). These were also the best speakers of English, which was not so common in those days, and many of them spoke our language fairly well.
Among the best English speakers were a few who were very, very competitive. Their desire to perfect the language was thus that they often sought approval amongst us Americans and would flat out ask “How’s my English?” and “Can you hear an accent?” We could often tell when they’d been practicing, or had recently learned a new phrase, because we could detect their anticipation to utilize the new found words. We could see it in their faces the moment they walked into the office – they couldn’t wait to insert something new into a sentence. There were a few times I marveled at the level of preparation. Sometimes, the strategies devised to steer the conversation towards the opportunity to actually employ these learnings was more impressive than the first-time use of the words, or expressions, themselves.
On some occasions, the use of their newly found treasure was dead nuts…..and the level of confidence with which it left their mouths was a joy to see. There was sometimes a smugness to the accomplishment when it was known darn well it was perfect: the grin, the body language, the eyes casually looking around the room to acknowledge the incremental improvement, as if to say, “yeah – I just said that.”
Other times, they weren’t always so sure. A different expression would overcome them…one that was uncertain, and sought approval. I’ll never forget the time Mr. Kim told me “it’s a topsy-turvy world.” Or when Ms. Oh commented that the weather was “capricious.”
I also remember the very best of them, to a degree, as thinking of each other as rivals. While cordial, one man would inquire if his English was better than another man’s….by name. Each knew who the other great speakers were, and were definitely out to establish superiority.
Enter Colonel Lilley, chief of the public affairs office.
Koreans utilize the “R” and the “L” sound and have very similar consonants in their alphabet. However, these sounds are used in almost complete opposite positions as used in English. Therefore, where we might use an L sound in a word, Koreans will often make an R sound, and vice versa (I think I described this correctly???). Therefore, the name and rank “Colonel Lilley” presented a very daunting challenge to even the strongest of English speakers. Remember: some of these folks would go so far as to ask if we could detect an accent. They studied and worked hard to master English….and some of them spoke very, very well. However, this was a time before computers…..before Rosetta Stone. Not many folks had cable television in which to tune in to American programming. English, or any other subject, was learned the old fashioned way.
“Colonel Lilley,” was the Achilles Heel. Because he was the decision maker, he was sought often. Addressing him by name was unavoidable. No matter how well the speaker, his name always came out “Corrurr Rearry.” It got to the point where I started feeling sorry for the Koreans. I began picturing them at home late into the night, in the mirror, practicing his name over, and over, and over. After several months of watching this episode repeat itself, I began to think of Colonel Lilley as a sort of Medusa, and started envisioning Koreans turned to stone all throughout the office as they failed, one by one, to properly pronounce his name, their tongues frozen for eternity in that awkward position between “L” and “R,” desperately attempting to complete the full roll required to pronounce his name properly.
Looking back, I’m sure the Koreans enjoyed visiting our office. When one studies a language, it’s always fun to have an opportunity to speak. I know we genuinely had a good time interacting with them. I made some life-long friends on that job, and picked up a great deal of Korean language (I wish my Korean was half as good as their English!). I always wondered if, deep down, some of them dreaded the fact that they might have to address the good colonel, or if they were relieved to find him absent? I wish I could say I remember the day the Korean Perseus swaggered through those doors, slaying the commander once and for all, but I can’t.
To this very day, among an older generation of Koreans around Seung Ton Shi, the myth of Colonel Lilley lives on. Perhaps his legend in the region is now used as a motivational tool to entice young Koreans to study harder?
“Study your English of you’ll be turned to stone,” I can hear some hal-oboji telling his grandchild.
Perhaps some of those dignitaries from days gone by finally mastered the “R” and the “L.” But I’ve also heard it said that on particularly cold nights, the sounds of “rearry, rearry, rearry,” can be heard echoing in the winds blowing through the mountains and villages of Gyeonggido Province.
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Guns ‘n God — what else do ya need?

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I drove past this sign about a month ago and admit I completely misjudged. A quick Google check of this site led me to the discovery that this was a stop on The Underground Railroad, and that the guns were necessary for the abolitionists to protect themselves from pro-slavery forces. I did not make the right turn and travel the extra three miles, but will make the extra detour next time I pass through that area. I suppose we can never judge a book by its cover.

Dumb and Dumber….of the Air Force

I joined the Air Force in 1987 and shipped off for active duty in March of 1988.

After I was gone for about six months, I received a frantic phone call from my mother back home asking if I was OK. I don’t quite remember how the call arrived, as there were no cell phones, or other of today’s communication methods.

The first question out of her mouth was, “Are you OK?” The young man’s answer to this question is, “of course…why wouldn’t I be?”

What had happened to stir her up was a couple of Air Force recruiters showed up at the house, in an Air Force vehicle, on a routine recruiting call. They must have had my name in a file somewhere as a potential “customer,” but were unaware that I had enlisted and was already on active duty.

So there was my mom, watching an Air Force vehicle coming down the street. We lived at the end of a dead-end block. This meant that cars rarely ever came to the end. When a car did drive all the way to our end of the street, everybody would look out to see who it might be.

So, picture the scene: official United States Air Force car coming down the street. Two Air Force members in dress blues get out and start walking towards the house. The neighbors, knowing darn well I was off in the service, are all starting to come out to see what the heck is happening.

My mom was on the porch in panic mode before those men made half way up the side-walk. It didn’t take her long to put the pieces together — and anybody who knew my mom knew she was not a women who played. I still feel sorry for those recruiters….a little bit. I’ll bet she had some fine words for them, but not before they scared the daylights out of her by just simply showing up.

Darn fools.

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The New Basic?

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Note: I don’t mean to offend anybody here, and admit some of this is what we in the military used to refer to as “barrack’s talk.” This conversation also focuses, exclusively, on Air Force Basic Training. At the same time, I speak with veterans of all branches on a regular basis and hear similar opinions. Also, in no way am I taking anything away from those who’ve made the decision to volunteer for the armed forces. The things they are asked to do are…well… they put their asses on the line, for sure. Nobody can know what goes through the mind of another, and we cannot judge until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes…or, in this case, combat boots.

I happened to stumble upon a group of United States Air Force recruits while passing through San Antonio a few months ago. There they were: in single file lines; large manila envelopes in hand – looking a bit nervous.

Upon initial glance I wondered “what the heck are those kids?” Then it occurred to me, mid-thought, they could only be in transit to Lackland Air Force Base — home of Air Force Basic Training School. Yep. Had to be. There could be no other explanation. Young folks arriving from points far and near to begin the process of becoming airman….the same journey I embarked on many years ago in 1988.

I snapped a photo and posted it on various social media sites, and sent it to a few fellow veterans for a laugh – “hey guys, remember this?” To a man, each knew immediately the content of the photo of which I had sent. The photo received more than 1,000 likes/comments, and sparked off a serious string of “I-remember-this-one-time” stories. The reminiscing then evolved into a story about how much times have changed.

For example, the recruits in the photo were much more relaxed than I remember….joking and chatting with one another. Many of them had cell phones in use, and there were even a few “helicopter parents” hovering in the vicinity. I clearly remember that our conversations were held to an absolute minimum. I also believe that, even had cell phones been in existence, they would have already been taken away from us by this point. And parents? Really?

Some of these rainbows (a term used to describe recruits still dressed in civilian clothes) had the same nervous and apprehensive look about them but, overall, most appeared very casual….as if they were off to summer camp.

I met with some fellow veterans in San Antonio later that week and brought this topic up for discussion. I’ve also discussed it with other veterans since. We all agreed that, as is inevitable, times certainly have changed. However, we also agreed that some of the particular cultural changes in military basic training we are hearing about are detrimental to the readiness of our troops.

For example, some of my “Lackland sources” mentioned that two drill instructors must now be present during disciplinary sessions, and that the wording must be 100% politically correct. Really? The DI’s must now worry about the feelings of the trainees? All of the groups with which I’ve discussed modern basic training also indicate that there is cannot be any physical contact whatsoever.

Flashback to 1988: I remember some of the older guys talking about “Back when I passed through boot camp.” Well, in 1988 I do remember a one guy…how shall we word this? As my mother would have said, he got “what for.” I also remember he deserved “what for.” I never got hit, but I once received a pretty good shove. I also got yanked out of one of those big, industrial sized dryers by ankles once while on laundry patrol…..don’t ask. And not one of us made it through without being verbally lambasted and insulted – there was no holding back…none whatsoever. Some of us could hack it while others could not. A few guys, literally, broke down and started crying on the spot. Others sucked it up, got better, and progressed through the program. One day a guy was there. The next, just an empty bunk. I don’t remember the exact math, but let’s just say there were about 25% fewer airman in the barracks by the time graduation day rolled around.

We veterans are still talking about this topic and we’ve come to a few conclusions. We also understand that many folks, especially those who have never served, will most likely disagree. But isn’t one of the purposes of basic training to weed out those who can’t hack it? And another purpose to prepare troops for life in the military – which means, ultimately, the possibility of any wartime situation imaginable?

As this conversation continued to evolve, we started equating the high rate of suicides among service people and veterans to the relative ease of which troops, apparently, are now passing through the “screening phase,” e.g. basic training. What if drill instructors still verbally insulted the troops in ways of years past? Believe me, I learned many new words and insults during my time in basic training…and none of it was PC. And, occasionally, what if a drill instructor slapped a trainee on occasion? Heck – do they still have KP duty?!?!

This is the military, for crying out loud. It’s not orientation for a job at IBM. These kids could very well be in the line of fire in 90 days, or so. If they can’t hack being yelled at, or perhaps even shoved or slapped, how in the heck are they going to be handle what might come next?

Yes – this might be “just barrack’s talk,” but it’s also abundantly clear that the so-called experts in Washington D.C. don’t have an answer. The bottom line is that the military has been forced to relax recruiting standards to boost its numbers thus allowing the sub-standard troops join its ranks.

War is hell. How can the troops be expected to cope when we coddle them during what is supposed to be the indoctrination period?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks.

Update 24 OCT 14: This post has been active for about two weeks and I’ve received plenty of feedback, both negative and positive. Some folks told me there is no way there was any physical contact, and others told me stories of airmen who did, indeed, get shoved, or even hit. I can only tell you about my own experience. One guy did get hit, and I was once on the receiving end of a pretty good shove. And, for the record, the yelling was far from PC…very far.

Regarding the fact that our numbers were reduced throughout basic training, please allow me to clarify. Some guys, no doubt, simply could not hack it. I believe it was best for everybody that these people were weeded out early. Others became ill, or were injured, and were simply re-cycled into other flights. There were some who struggled with the tasks we were asked to accomplish, but weren’t bad guys. They, too, were re-cycled and given the opportunity to repeat some of the training. In turn, while empty bunks appeared from time to time, we also had a few new guys show up who had been re-cycled into our flight. The fact is that there were fewer of us at graduation then there were on Day 1. I don’t know why people wrote to me debating this point.

Of all the communication I have with military folks, it’s the MWR people with whom I have the most contact. I’m told that the military struggles with physical readiness the same as the rest of society. Not sure why this was such a shock to some people. Coincidentally, I was a unit PT monitor many moons ago. We had other names for the program such as “The Large Sarge Program,” and a few others. Funny enough, they still even use this term…kinda like chow hall.

Thanks again for reading.

 

A picture is worth a thousand clicks….

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I flew into San Antonio recently for a work-related event and spotted these young folks lined up near the baggage claim area. The single file lines and the large, manila envelopes gave them away: they were on their way to Air Force Basic Training!

I stood in this very same line, with one of those same envelopes, back in 1988. I could not resist the temptation to joke with them so I had to think fast. I spotted two nuns waiting for luggage. I pointed them out to the young airmen and told them that I had asked the nuns to say a prayer for them. I got a few chuckles, a few wide eyes, but mostly that deer-in-the-headlights look.

I posted this photo on several military themed Facebook pages and received thousands of hits and hundreds of comments. I did not state where these kids were going, only that I was in San Antonio and that I noticed the lines and the envelopes. I asked the social networks “Where do you suppose they could be going?” It did not take long for the responses to start rolling, and everybody knew the correct answer. This photo brought back a lot of memories for a lot of people.

Basic training: a fun-filled eight weeks for any young man or woman.

I thanked them for making the commitment to serve our country and advised them to volunteer for nothing, never be first, or last, and to keep their mouths shut — and that they’d they be fine.

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Alconbury troops return from Desert Storm

Home Sweet Home

Following are some photos which appeared in the Spartan Spirit on Friday, May 24, 1991, as some troops returned home from the desert.

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note: unfortunately, none of these photos were labeled with names/ranks. Perhaps somebody knows these folks? Maybe it’s you?!?!

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It was more than just another payday May15 as a 747 landed on Alconbury’s runway delivering 129 Desert Strom troops form the 10th Tactical Fighter Wing. Although people and aircraft have been trickling in for a few months, this is the first large re-deployment of Alconbury people.

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About 500 friends, family and co-workers were on hand with flags, cameras and open arms to greet returning Desert Warriors. Unfortunately, work in the Gulf is not complete and many of our troops are still there. Hopefully, more A-10’s and 747s are heading our way soon.

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