The KATUSA experience
A KATUSA soldier treats an injured woman and her child during the Korean War. (Photo courtesy 2nd Infantry Division Museum)

SOUTH KOREA - The Korean Augmentation to the United States Army program began during the Korean War through an agreement between the president of the Republic of Korea, Rhee Syng-man, and General of the Army Douglas McArthur. Originally intended to match able-bodied Korean personnel with available U.S. equipment, the program evolved into a cultural exchange and a symbol of friendship between the two nations.

Despite a long and fruitful relationship, it is not entirely uncommon to hear of KATUSA soldiers being generalized as disinterested or unmotivated. Or, at least, that is the perception many KATUSA soldiers have of others' opinions. It is a stereotype, most KATUSAs will admit, with a grain of truth. But, it is not without good reason.

As conscripted soldiers, young Korean men can expect separation from their families and friends, disruption of education and relationships, monthly compensation of less than $200 per month, and very little free time. It lasts for approximately two years and any refusal to meet this requirement is met with either jail time or a loss of citizenship.

The vast majority serve out their time with the ROK army and then happily return to civilian life. The story is much the same for those who are accepted into the KATUSA program. And, while they enjoy much-improved living conditions, it is a highly competitive process exacerbated by extremely limited availability.

Despite the challenges facing these young men, regardless of their station, most serve their time honorably.

"Unlike what some people think of us, most KATUSA soldiers actually try to get something out of their service," said Sgt. Won Jung-ho, a non-commissioned officer in 2nd Infantry Division safety office.

Won, though approaching the end of his service requirement, continues to set goals for himself. In the last 18 months he has worked diligently to improve his English, earned the U.S. Army physical fitness badge, competed in a battalion-level Non-commissioned Officer of the Quarter board, volunteered to train KATUSAs who fail to meet physical fitness standards, and given safety briefs to KATUSA soldiers in-processing at the Warrior Readiness Center. He is also preparing to attend the Warrior Leadership Course.

In fact, many U.S. soldiers are grateful for the expertise and professionalism of their KATUSA counterparts.

"One of the KATUSA soldiers I worked with was Sgt. Cho Sang-ho, who was in charge of alert rosters and slides for the battalion. He also translated road maps for the battalion to use," said Spc. Skyler Howell, a command driver for Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion.

"He was a really dedicated and motivated worker. He never complained about anything," added Howell. "I think a lot of KATUSAs still try their best [...] because they were raised in a culture where it is a virtue to be hard-working."

The gratitude and respect goes both ways, as many KATUSAs are aware of how fortunate they are to be a part of the program, as it allows more time to study, weekend passes and a more diverse selection of foods than does life in the ROK army.

"Since we have more free time compared to ROK army soldiers, it is easy to feel guilty if we waste our time. It is really a blessing to become a KATUSA," concluded Won.

Page last updated Mon September 10th, 2012 at 00:00