By By Staff Sgt. Aaron Duncan, 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade PAOMay 2, 2013
CAMP HUMPHREYS -- South Koreans are known for many things, such as their rich cultural heritage and delicious food, but what does not often come to mind is that the Republic of Korea is one of about 25 countries in the world with a mandatory national service or conscription program. All South Korean males between the ages of 18 and 35 are obligated to serve at least 21 months in the military or police.
For those proficient in the English language, a special assignment is available -- the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army program, which allows Korean and American Soldiers to serve alongside each other for the enrichment of both countries involved. The program operates as a symbol of the two countries' friendship and cooperation to promote peace and deter war on the Korean Peninsula.
A few of the KATUSA Soldiers in this program, who are close to finishing their duty, recently took the time to reflect on their 21 months of service and what being in the KATUSA program has taught them. "I really enjoyed it (the KATUSA program) because you get to interact with U.S. Soldiers and make friends," said Sgt. Han Sang-yun, a medic with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade.
The KATUSA Soldiers are not the only ones the program leaves lasting memories and friendships with; U.S. Soldiers who work with them are deeply impacted by the program as well. "Sergeant Han and I came to the unit on the exact same day," said Spc. Nathan McKee, assigned to HHC as a health care specialist. "At the beginning, I was in charge, so it was on me to teach him the ropes of being a medic. "Over time, a friendship developed between us," McKee said. "I was teaching him to be a medic and he was teaching me how to be Korean."
For KATUSA Soldiers like Han, these interactions have allowed him to see Americans differently from what is depicted on the television screen. "When you are a civilian all you see is the U.S. Soldiers who messed up something, like getting in trouble drinking," said Han. "You see only the negative news; they really don't show you good things about U.S. Soldiers. When you become a KATUSA though, you get to work with them and get to know them. This allows you to see they are good people."
Like any relationship, the ties between the U.S. and the Republic of Korea are made stronger through daily interaction with each other's cultures. The KATUSA program makes that vital interaction possible. "It is a great program," said Sgt. Seo Sang-hyun, a senior KATUSA for HHC. "Unlike other ROK units, I get a chance to speak English and deal with U.S. Soldiers who come from different backgrounds."
Not only did this program give Seo the opportunity to experience new cultures but it also allowed him to learn valuable leadership skills for use in the civilian world after the military. "It is the first time I have had a leadership position in my life," said Seo. "I already graduated from college so when I get out I will need to start applying to jobs. The KATUSA program has given me self-confidence and pride."
While it may be time for these KATUSAs to leave the service to make room for the new kids on the block, the camaraderie and friendship these Soldiers have experienced have already made the alliance between the two nations personal. "Sergeant Han is pretty much the closest friend I have here in Korea," said McKee. "He is going to be going to school in Georgia when he gets out of the ROK army and I will be getting out of the U.S. Army and going to Texas. They are not too far apart from each other, so I plan on going to see him back in the States."