Running with American spirit Posted : 2018-04-24 19:23
By Kyung Lee
Photo note: Choe Kyung-ho, left, with fellow U.S. and KATUSA soldiers in Camp Coiner in Yongsan Garrison in this image dated Oct. 2, 1997. / Courtesy of Yongsan Legacy
As the U.S. military relocates out of Yongsan Garrison, Yongsan Legacy aims to archive the living memories of those who served, worked and lived there. This is one of them. ― ED.
On select weekday mornings at 5 a.m., Choe Kyung-ho would fit into his gym clothes and combat boots to join his Korean and U.S. military brethren for an intense hike up Namsan Park out from the back gate of Camp Coiner and through a still slumbering Huam-dong.
Choe served under the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army (KATUSA) on Yongsan Garrison from March 1997 to March 1999.
Laboring on up Sowol-ro along Namsan Park, they reached the Namsan Beacon Fire Station, a historic Joseon-era spot up by the peak, from where they could enjoy a vista of a briefly quiet and empty Seoul before sunrise. Then Choe’s unit would trail east and descend back down into the now-awakening city, taking either Sinheung-ro in Haebangchon or Gyeongnidan-gil, between 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m.
Passing by commuters and schoolchildren on their way back to base, a young 21-year-old U.S. service member accompanying Choe often greeted the groups of high school girls.
“Hey! I’m an American! An American!” Choe recalls his American brother-in-arms yelling to the girls in basic Korean. “I love you all!”
The spectacle, which Choe recalls occurring two or three times a month, would often cause fellow soldiers and students bowing or swaying their heads away in shyness from such silly cheers, including Choe himself.
“I felt embarrassed, telling him ‘Let’s go! Do not offend the civilians, they can get scared,'” he said.
On the other hand, sometimes the exchanges were reciprocated with “I love you, Americans” or high school girls “screaming” with amicable laughter. With situations like these that evoked a more positive response from the girls, Choe said he could also empathize with his playful American counterpart seeking a partial sense of belonging with a local crowd he knew almost nothing about as an outsider to Korea’s social and cultural fabrics.
“I could understand that young soldiers were curious to spark up a conversation with the locals since they’d never before ventured into any foreign country or city,” he said. “Looking back, I felt situations as unique as this could only be seen within the proximity of our base.”
Choe, a decorated member of KATUSA group 9701, was first assigned to the Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment (HHD) of the 94th Military Police Battalion of the Eighth U.S. Army’s 8th Military Police Brigade. Later he trained U.S. and KATUSA soldiers after completing the Primary Leadership Development Course (PLDC) at the U.S. Army Non-Commissioned Officer Education System (NCOES).
Throughout his service, Choe has clocked six long-distance routes running in and around the confines of Yongsan Garrison, with or sometimes without the company of U.S. soldiers.
Still, he says the American spirit of jogging would always tickle his inner psyche, giving him a chance to observe the changing hands at shops and residential life such as in Haebangchon or noticing chalk marks drawn on the ground by senior U.S. officers to guide their units on the roads and back to base.
Taking up the longest-distance route that stretched from the current Gate 13 off South Post, crossing over Banpo Bridge and taking Hannam Bridge for the trip back, Choe would pause on one of the bridges to appreciate the other views Han River and Seoul offer, along with the chalk lines and drawings on the ground ― sometimes 100 meters apart ― left behind by U.S. soldiers.
“We’d (Korean soldiers) run in an orderly fashion and get scolded if we didn’t keep up with our American counterparts,” he said. “Running past a chalk line, however, reminded me how freely you could run at your own pace while undergoing physical training.”
“Whenever I notice the white markings, I tell myself, ‘Yeah, those lines were drawn by the Americans.'”
Visit yongsanlegacy.org to read more about the history of Seoul’s disappearing U.S. garrison or to contribute your own memories.