North by Nothwestern: KATUSA Journal of Camp Jackson
The train towards Camp Jackson, Euijeongbu, is tedious. I am counting down time, continuously tapping my feet on the floor, dragging my boots every half-an-hour to the restroom just to moisturize my palms. After five-and-a-half hours, as the train slowed down at the last station, Euijeongbu, I see five American soldiers wearing the uniforms I have seen in The Hurt Locker. It was unreal.
“Wait, what?” you, as a reader, might ask. “I thought he was in the South Korean Army.”
Let me explain how this unusual greeting applies to myself. I am part of the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army (KATUSA). Every Korean soldier wearing an American soldier uniform is referred as a KATUSA. KATUSAs go through two separate basic trainings: the Korean Army Basic Training and the American Army Basic Training. I just arrived at Euijeongbu to start my American training.
I hear loud war cries from American soldiers with many striped ranks displayed across their chests. Good thing I know English. I know what they want from me.
“Hurry the fuck up KATUSAs!”
My friends run sprinting down the stairs. One friend, Park, slips and rolls down the stairs, but no one seems to care. He has blood running down his hand, sweat racing down his face, while his eyes lose focus. I notice, but still I’m too busy minding my own business. Pushing friends out of the way like a football player, I run this race, not knowing why. My duffel bag straps slide down my shoulders, my beret constantly slips, my glasses click the tip of my nose and my right boot laces dance back and forth across my shoe.
In the bus, Sergeant First Class Park and Staff Sergeant Campbell ask for squad leader volunteers. I raised my right arm, and for being one of the the first ones to do so, I became a squad leader. Many have told me that squad leaders get to skip fireguard shifts, a small privilege in return for increased responsibility. Fire guard can be a torment for anyone. It entails holding onto a Vietnam War-era radio, trying to stay awake and having one’s back straight for an hour. It is not the most enjoyable duty.
“Get off the bus! Hurry up, we are not here to play fuck-fuck games.”
“Hurry up.” Those are the words. The most repeated words from the drill sergeant’s’ voice is what kills me the most. I do not remember anyone telling me about this. I have heard people say there’s an omelette in the morning, two glasses of water every meal, a shaved head and selection for various positions at different bases, but nobody told me about extra hardship of cruelty and devastation. I am absolutely speechless. My imagination gets struck down from commands and/or curse words. Now I start paying attention to these words. “Fuck” is used for a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun and article in one sentence. Hearing this is really not entertaining.
Through the tempest of insults and “motivation,” I quickly, yet carefully, run to the parking lot. Only a few minutes later, all 191 KATUSA trainees stand in formation and form a line of camouflage-patterned pants. “Empty your duffel bags, NOW!” “Yes, Sergeant, on my way,” I think. Gravity harshly drags every item to the ground. The slightest chance of a miracle of escaping physical punishment shatters as drill sergeants order me to execute push-ups for a disorganized assortment of items. One, two, three, four. I am now entirely convinced that push-ups can be employed as a means of punishment – it constructs a profound disciplinary foundation. Asphalt pieces dig their way into my palms, pushing, piercing, ripping and grinding for a spot. A silent scream rings in my head, and sweat from my hair soaks my beret.
Alongside discipline, time is sacred at Camp Jackson, and misuse of it leads to physical self-torture and mental breakdown. Culinary quality cannot be evaluated when a mix of different food is blended within a few mandible movements only to take an express train destined for digestion. Three minutes may seem lengthy enough when waiting for my crush to text back, but, for a whole meal, three minutes happens at fighter jet speed. Plus, I don’t get to choose what I eat. Whatever’s on the plate, that’s my meal. I eat the food now and taste it later.
As I lay myself on a framed-bed at the end of the night, setting my watch alarm for four in the morning for physical training, friction noise from the line No.1 subway rings my eardrums. That train can take me home where my family savors a comfortable sleep and recharges with a cup of coffee in the daytime. A tear forms over my eyelids, and uncontrollable breathing paralyzes my hands. I shove my face into a pillow, and call out “mama” soundlessly as I fall asleep.
Read me a bedtime story, please.