Unit Ministry Teams Help Soldiers Appreciate Host-Nation Culture

By Kurt E. Van Slooten, 501st Military Intelligence Brigade PAOJanuary 16, 2020

501st Military Intelligence Brigade Soldiers at Hwaseong Fortress Seojangdae
1 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – The 501st Military Intelligence Brigade cultural tour group poses for a photo after climbing the steps of the Seojangdae, part of the Hwaseong Fortress, Suwon, Republic of Korea, Dec. 13, 2019. The cultural tour, known as the Red Dragon Orientation p... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Soldiers Ring Bell at Hwaseong Fortress
2 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Pvt. Summer Williams (right) and Pfc. Michael Sutton, from 501st Military Intelligence Brigade, took the opportunity to ring the massive bronze Bell of Hyowon during their tour of Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon, Republic of Korea, Dec. 13, 2019. The cult... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
501st Military Intelligence Brigade Soldiers at Hwaseong Haenggung
3 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – The 501st Military Intelligence Brigade members view the Hwaseong Haenggung, or temporary palace map, during a Korean cultural experience tour, Suwon, Republic of Korea, Dec. 13, 2019. The cultural tour, known as the Red Dragon Orientation program, i... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

USAG HUMPHREYS, South Korea -- Soldiers stationed in countries around the world have the opportunity to go places and see things that the majority of U.S. citizens don't even know exist.

However, not all Soldiers appreciate the cultural experience that serving overseas affords and do not take the opportunities to see and experience what their host-nation has to offer.

The 501st Military Intelligence (MI) Brigade wanted to assist new Soldiers with the opportunity to see the host nation's culture and institute a host nation cultural experience called the Red Dragon Orientation program. The Red Dragon Orientation is a program to new Soldiers, civilians and family members to go off post and tour the local Korean communities, experiencing the culture, food, people and history of the host nation.

The members of the 524th MI Battalion Unit Ministry Team, Chaplain Capt. Oleksandr "Alex" Ishchuk; Pvt. Summer Williams, religious affairs specialist, and two Korean Augmentation to the United States Army (KATUSA) Soldiers, Cpl. Sang-Woo Park and Pfc. Hyun-Jun Park, planned a day visiting the city of Suwon, Dec. 13.

The day's events included dining at local restaurants near Suwon's AK Plaza, visiting Hwaseong Fortress, Hyowon's Bell and Hwaseong Haenggung.

Ishchuk explained, "The reason we host cultural orientation tours for newly arrived Soldiers, civilians and family members is to create opportunities for them to discover Korea and eliminate the 'scary' unknown that keeps them in self-inflicted confinement to the barracks or to post."

"For many of our Soldiers, being stationed in Korea is their first experience outside of the United States, and for many outside their home state," continued Ishchuk. "This is a major transition that not only plunges them into a completely different culture, but also separates them from their loved ones by distance and time. By providing these tours, we hope that they see the amazing opportunity afforded to them here in Korea and that they will view it more as an assignment of choice and maybe even bring their families here."

The day started with breakfast at the Provider Grill dining facility for the Soldiers in the group, followed by a short bus ride to the pedestrian gate near the Anjeong-Ri Gate on Camp Humphreys.

Those in the group that needed to exchange U.S. dollars to Korean won were able to do so before the day's excursion right outside the pedestrian gate. The tour guides advised the group to purchase a T-Money card that would allow them to easily access the bus and the subway system.

The group was introduced to the Korean mass transportation system riding a bus to Pyeongtaek Station, where they caught the subway to Suwon Station and another bus to the stop outside the Hwaseomun Gate of the Hwaseong Fortress.

Hwaseong Fortress or Suwon Hwaseong is a 3.57-mile fortification consisting of 13 to 20-foot walls and battlements surrounding the Hwaseong Haenggung in the center of Suwon. According to the Korea Tourism Organization, King Jeongjo of the Joseon dynasty built the fortress during the course of two years, starting in 1794. It was built to house and honor the remains of his father, Prince Sado. The fortress is listed by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site.

The group viewed the inside of the turret and hiked up the walkway along the inside of the wall. Following the climbing of many steep stairs, they reached the Seojangdae (or western command post). The Seojangdae holds a commanding view of the duality that exists with the modern city of Suwon outside the wall and the ancient palace, temples and museums inside the wall.

A little further along the trail, the group saw the bronze Bell of Hyowon. The Bell of Hyowon, which is more than 11-feet tall, created to honor the devotion of King Jeongjo, held for his father. Guests can ring the bell for a minor fee. Several people from the group took advantage of the chance and, in groups of two, used the striker suspended from ropes to ring the massive bell. According to the posting near the bell, the first toll shows gratitude and respect to one's parents, the second toll is a wish for health and harmony in one's family and the third, and final, toll is a wish for the realization of one's dreams.

After ringing the bell, which was sure to have been heard for a good distance, the group followed the trail down from the Seojangdae to the Hwaseong Haenggung. According to the Korea Tourism Organization, a haenggung is a temporary palace and is used as a retreat by the royal family during times of war. King Jeongjo also stayed here during trips to worship at his father's tomb and held various parties and events at the palace.

The group explored the palace and saw many historical mannequins dressed in traditional Korean garb of the different eras, staged throughout the palace. While exploring, they also saw the Hwaryeong-Jeon Hall, the only remaining intact Joseon dynasty building in the complex. This hall was designated a Korean national treasure earlier this year.

After completing the palace tour, the group broke up into two smaller groups for lunch. Both groups ate at local Korean restaurants near AK Plaza, enjoying unfamiliar cuisine as a part of the experience.

When lunch had concluded, the group reassembled and experienced a third form of mass transit when they caught one of the Mugunghwa Korail trains back to Pyeongtaek Station. From there they rode a bus back to Camp Humphreys completing their day's adventure.

Capt. Taylor Carmichael, Pyeongtaek Mission Center Operations Officer, said that even as a more seasoned Soldier, he greatly benefited from the tour.

"The biggest benefit of the cultural trip personally was getting exposed to the Korean transportation system," said Carmichael. "We traveled on city bus, commuter train, and subway. If I hadn't gone on this trip I would have had a lot more frustration trying to figure all that out on my own. The next week I took my wife to Seoul (using public transit) and we had a great time experiencing more of the country."

Carmichael said he feels that new junior enlisted Soldiers would really benefit from the chance to just get immersed in another culture, especially if it is their first time in another country.

"Trips like this give them an incentive to get out of the Camp Humphreys bubble and challenge themselves with something new. Every unit should have some kind of cultural immersion trip for the Soldiers because it increases the Soldiers' ability to enjoy themselves while staying in Korea, while also instilling more confidence in working here if we ever had to execute contingency operations."