Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas in the North Korean Demilitarized Zone

With Christmas just a few days away, we know we are so lucky to have our soldier home this year.  He finished his deployment to the combat zones of Afghanistan just before Thanksgiving.  Many more soldiers are coming home in the next few weeks - their families scurrying to move furniture out of storage, postpone holiday celebrations and begin to reclaim their lives.

Many more soldiers will be eating Christmas dinner in a chow hall far, far from home.  I've never done that.  Until 2002, it would have been the furthest thing from my mind on Christmas Day.  That's the year our daughter met and fell in love with a young soldier whose training and skills are in combat warfare.  Did you know there were many, many young men whose set of skills and value is based on their ability to kill quickly and efficiently?  It makes it difficult for them to transition to a career, lets say, in managing a convenience store back home.  At the same time, I have to be deeply, deeply thankful that there are men like him who can do this job on my behalf.  I can find someone to manage the convenience store.   

So, our daughter married this soldier and he continues to learn skills and gain experience in his profession.  Thanks to our current world situation, he's been fast-tracked.  It's a fact.

They announced a whirlwind wedding in the Spring of 2003, just a few days before the invasion of Iraq.  He was stationed in Korea, sleeping and working just a few yards from the North Korean border.  Pot shots were a daily occurence.  Soldiers knew to never go anywhere without their "battle buddy".  Later, I googled and read about soldiers who had been killed or injured when alone in that area.  A "battle buddy" seems like a fun, get-to-know-each-other, moral building idea.  It is not. 

He asked her to marry him on his leave in July, rather than wait until he could come home nearly a year later.  She said yes.  So, he flew home for two weeks to marry and honeymoon.  Then went back to isolation at Camp Garryowen.  As Christmas neared he asked her to come visit. 

A sixth generation girl from Kansas, who has rarely even been outside of her state's borders, bought a plane ticket for Korea.    She was the first in our family to ever need a passport.  She signed up for vaccinations we knew nothing about.  And we postponed our Christmas, waiting to swoop her back into our safety net.  His base is very remote.  Most wives never visit because there are no accomodations for them. 

At Christmas time, I think about her reflections from her visit.  She was excited as she reached Seoul.  Her new husband met her there.  His "battle buddy" had made arrangements to appropriately leave them in the safety of the city.  She stayed in a beautiful hotel.  They shopped and did touristy things in what might be called the "American GI" area of the city.  An extended honeymoon in an exotic city that was thriving and fun.  Then it was time for him to report back to the base.  They took a taxi.  For miles and miles the scenes outside the window became more desolate and depressing.  The further they traveled outside the city, the more bombed out structures they saw leftover from the war.  It was like a part of the world that was still at war.  At a certain point, they began driving past the many, many guard stations that still line the deserted road. 

At Camp Garryowen she was taken to the Commander's office right away.  He instructed her on what to do "in case."  Primarily, she was to pick up whatever belongings she could gather quickly and report to his office.  Anyone else like her that was currently on the base would also be there.  Since it was the holidays, she would be the only one.  She was to wait.  It might be a long wait.  Someone would come and get her and prepare her to be evacuated. 

When I heard this, as a mother, I was heartsick.  But then she told me what her husband would be doing if this same incident were to happen.  His group was one of the tank platoons that were to drive over THE bridge, bombing it behind them as they crossed.  This would ensure that North Korean troops couldn't use the bridge to gain access.  And of course, my next question was, "And then what is he supposed to do?"  to which there really is no answer.  And I am heartsick.

On Christmas Day, the young lovers ate together in the chow hall.  Camp Garryowen is a very small base so its a small chow hall.  She said the food was wonderful.  The chow hall was decorated.  But the atmosphere was undeniable.  The soldiers came in and ate.  And left.  Each one of them dealing with their own private loneliness on this day of family and friends.  Each looking at her, the only American woman they'd seen in a while, but looking away because it was too painful.  Each knowing they had loved ones waiting for them.  Each counting the months and days.  Each pondering whether or not they had made the right decision so long ago when choosing to volunteer to defend the country they loved.  These are the days our soldiers learn to just push through.  And that is exactly what they did at Camp Garryowen on Christmas Day in 2003. 

I am grateful because I understand the cost of the gift they give to me every day.


Anonymous said...

Oh, Kitty, this story brought tears to my eyes. It strikes me that your daughter is very brave in her way. May the returning soldier find an employer who respects all of the discipline and expertise he has acquired in service.

Anne @ The Frump Factor said...

Stories like these are so humbling. Thank you for sharing. I wish your daughter and her soldier much happiness.