War vets return to transformed South Korea
September 20, 2010
SEOUL, South Korea, Sept. 17, 2010 - When Korean War veteran Fred Brady, now age 84, had last set foot in South Korea, the country was in the throes of a brutal conflict that left devastation at every turn.
A combat medic serving with the Army's 3rd Field Hospital, Brady saw the extent of the destruction first-hand as he followed the fight from the Pusan Perimeter to Taegu, tending to the wounded.
This week, Brady and 139 other Korean War veterans got an eye-opening experience as they returned here -- almost all for the first time since the war -- to participate in ceremonies marking the conflict's 60th anniversary and to see the fruits of their efforts.
They're guests of the South Korean government, which launched the Korea Revisit Program in 1975 to thank Korean War veterans for their sacrifices.
Participants pay half of their airfare here, with South Korea's ministry of patriots and veterans affairs picking up the rest of the tab, along with the costs of lodging, meals, tours and entertainment.
In addition to increasing the scope of the program to correspond with 60th anniversary commemorations over the next three years, the South Korean government has announced that it will now pay 30 percent of the airfare and all other costs for veterans' spouses or companions.
"[This is] the Republic of Korea saying, 'Thank you for all that you did 60 years ago in order for our country to get where it is today,'" said Army Gen. Walter L. "Skip" Sharp, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, Combined Forces Command and United Nations Command.
Brady said he'd planned to bring his wife along for the trip, and admitted his children had to talk him into coming after she died in the spring.
But as Brady and his fellow veterans attended a lavish banquet earlier this week, where they were showered with thanks by South Korean government and military leaders as well as Sharp, those reservations had long since been forgotten.
"This is an absolutely wonderful experience," said Brady, now a resident of Grand Isle, La. "I feel so many emotions; it's hard to choose just one to describe it all."
Like Brady, Ben Jaffray, who'd served as an Air Force first lieutenant with the 336th Fighter Interceptor Wing during the war, marveled at South Korea's transformation since he left here 57 years ago.
"The devastation was total," recalled 80-year-old Jaffray. "What you see here is a miracle."
Jaffray credited the Korean people, whose spirit and drive have built their war-devastated country into the world's 10th-largest economy with a gross domestic product approaching $1 trillion. "It's the attitude of the Koreans that's made it possible. I saw it then and I see it now," he said. "There's a level of enthusiasm and joy here."
"I can't believe what these people have done," echoed Bob Ellenz of Tipton, Kan., who is making his first visit here since 1951. "I'm dumbfounded," said the former 8th U.S. Army's 17th Field Artillery Division Soldier.
For Charles Gagnon of Port Angeles, Wash., a Navy quartermaster during the war serving under 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Alfred Pride, a highlight of the Korea Revisit Program has been the opportunity to reconnect with the Korean people. In addition to visiting the demilitarized zone and South Korean cultural sites this week, Gagnon spent a full day meeting with young South Korean students and sharing stories of his wartime experience here.
"It's absolutely awesome being here," he said, admitting that he, like Brady, initially had "a lot of reservations" about making the trip.
"This is a whole new nation," he said. "Being able to see it and recognizing that we helped play a part in building it makes me proud."
The veterans reveled at the reception they've received throughout their visit.
"I'm having a fantastic time," said Stan Levin of San Diego, a Navy veteran who served on an amphibious assault ship during the war. "They're treating us like royalty. It's almost embarrassing."
"This is a wonderful trip," Ellenz agreed. "I've enjoyed it so much; I wouldn't be surprised if I end up coming back again someday."
As they swapped war stories and explored the transformed South Korea, the veterans also took time to remember their buddies who never made it home from the Land of the Morning Calm.
"We all lost friends in the war," Jaffray said. "Being here and thinking about it, you get a little teary."
"This is all part of a healing process, being here and getting to see this beautiful country," said Brady.
James "Jamie" Wiedhahn, son of a Korean War veteran who helps to coordinate the U.S. Korea Revisit Program, called that emotional reckoning an important part of the experience.
"This is an opportunity for the veterans to see that what they went through made a difference," he said. "It's closing that chapter of the conflict they live with every night when they close their eyes."
Meanwhile, he said, the program helps to ensure that the lessons learned during Korean War get passed on to future generations.
"If we don't continue to learn and study history, it is going to happen all over again," he said. "A big part of this is to show that freedom isn't free."
Sharp, whose father was fighting in Korea when he was born in Morgantown, W.Va., said he grew up with that recognition, noting that he carries it with him every day as the top U.S. military officer in South Korea.
When Sharp had learned that he had been selected for the top U.S. commander's job in South Korea, he said, he dug through a cedar chest at his mother's house to find old pictures of his father in Korea, and later shared them with his Korean counterparts.
"I am honored to be able to follow in his footsteps," Sharp said of his father's Korean War service, "and to be able to continue to see the progress of Korea as we move forward from what it was back then to today, to the future with so many changes going on."
Earlier this week, Sharp thanked the visiting veterans for laying the groundwork for South Korea's modern-day success.
"The sacrifices that you and your fallen comrades made are the real reason the people of the Republic of Korea enjoy the freedom that we all share today," he said. "Thank you for all the sacrifices you made. You will always be remembered and honored for what we did here."