"Bridge of No Return" located in North/South Korea

 This story was sent to me by Michael Chen. Michael was searching for some inspirational words when he "stumbled" upon my website. He was going through a rough time dealing with a very close relative being diagnosed with cancer. Upon hearing about his situation, I sent him some words of comfort I had collected dealing with the loss of a friend or loved one. He talked to me through e-mails and over the phone for a few days as he tried to put everything into perspective. At the onset of our friendship, I felt as if I would be the beneficiary....and I was. He has such a tremendous way with words. Michael is very involved in life. He has a wonderfully fulfilling job, holds some titles in kickboxing, skydives on a regular basis....and is a volunteer for the Literacy Group in Dallas. He talked about these things which seem so different from each other. With the kickboxing, I could hear the excitement in his words....because of the hard work and commitment it takes to master the sport. And with the skydiving, there was an excitement like I have never heard. He simply said you feel as if you are flying. It is a totally exhilarating experience. He convinced me. Michael is an accomplished saxophone player and is currently studying piano. As he talked about working with students through the Literacy Society, I was very moved by his dedication. His current student is 45....Michael is 27. As much as Michael enjoys his other hobbies, he loves helping others bring the world to life through words. I was very touched. But somehow, when we meet a friend there seems to be something we give each other. I don't know how but as I offered words of comfort to Michael, he seemed to sense that there was something he needed to share with me. I was surprised when he said I am writing you about my time in the Army. One afternoon, I received this e-mail from him, along with the words....I hope this will inspire you. It did. It intensified my pride in America. We are such a wonderfully great country....and seeing things from Michael's eyes for a few moments only made me realize more than ever that we are great not only because we have a well-trained military, but a "caring" military made up of extraordinary individuals who know the true meaning of "unconditional love." I will forever remember the evening Michael described the "bridge of no return" to me. A few days later, he sent me this story....

I guess at 17, you really don't know what you want in life. Funny, as I look back on it, at 27, not much has changed. I think that's one of life's many beauties...uncertainty. If we all knew exactly what we wanted to do, we wouldn't have any reason to venture and pursue new goals or have the courage to dare to dream. With that said, here's a part of that dream:

Basic training, Ft Jackson, South Carolina. "Boot Camp," as it is more commonly referred to, lasted two months...THE most life-changing 60 days of my life. There is nothing to compare this experience to in civilian life. Over the next couple of months, I would develop a bond with 65 strangers whom I've never met but whom share one thing in common: fear. There's an old Chinese saying, "The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials." For the next 60 days, we would prove this true.

The transition from civilian to military is initially slow. They give you about a week to adjust in what they call a "reception battalion" where they introduce you to Uncle Sam. Here, you get your initial paperwork started, questions answered, life insurance signed, will notarized, etc. Here is also where they give you your first haircut...I say first because unless you are naturally bald or a skinhead, this is a frightening experience. You also get a series of shots and immunizations along with your first issue BDUs (Battle Dress Uniforms). You can think of this as your "gear" for the next four years. Hang up your civies (civilian clothes) and make room for your new wardrobe. Now the fun begins.

I ended up pulling fire guard the first night at the reception battalion. Although we slept in 70 man barracks, the need for a fire guard was more tradition than anything else. Safety is always on the forefront of everything you do in the military. However, I questioned the need to have people pulling one-hour shifts throughout the night when there was no threat of a fire. Anyway, that was just the first glimpse at how they do things here vrs. what I've have been accustomed to for the past 17 years of my life.

For the first week, if you had to go ANYWHERE, you were marched to that location. I belonged to a platoon and had a squad leader. I got my dog tags issued and was asked what religion I belonged to as it was a required print on your dog tags and for the rest of my career in the Army, I would be required to wear these metal tags around my neck. Here's what's on them: Your name, social security number, blood type, medical allergies (if any), and the religion you belong to. There are two sets of dog tags and the purpose of this was for the fact that if I was killed in combat, another soldier can take one (to take a body count) and leave the other so that they can identify my body. A pretty sobering thought at 17 when you pretty much think that you're invincible.

Basic training, day one. The buses came to take us from the reception battalion to boot camp. The silence of the people around you was amazing. As I stood there with about 60 other new recruits, the air was deathly quiet and you could hear a pin drop. All I heard was the beating of my chest in anticipation of what was going to come next and how long I would last. And just a side note: In that weeks time, I went from knowing no one to having at least 10 or 15 friends.

As we boarded the bus we had drill sergeants (those guys with the funny hats) yelling and swearing at us telling us to put our heads down between our legs. Not sure what the purpose of that was except just to scare us. It worked. They were giving us every reason in the world to quit. The first day of bootcamp was the toughest. My day began at 4am and didn't end until 10pm and this will continue for the next two months. Imagine all of these emotions set in a blender: fear, confusion, love, hate, and feeling homesick. But I had to overcome this in order to move forward and the only thought that gave me any solace was knowing that the person standing next to me was just as scared as I was...if not a little worse. This, as I would soon learn, would be the bond that would bring us together and do things as a team. You quickly learn to put your life in your buddy's hands and his in yours. Just a side note: By the end of basic training, I had made about 40 new friends.

Much like graduating high school, you end up saying good-bye to friends you may have known since elementary school. Imagine developing a friendship with about 40 of your peers and then having to say good-bye at the end of two months. Some of the friendships I made in those two months rivaled those I had in my childhood. Ironically, when you first begin basic training you are scared, unsure of yourself, and confused. By the end of those two months, you are now wiser, self-confident, and sure of your existence. In a funny sort of way, you're sad to see it end. You even find yourself missing your drill sergeants as they wish you well and say good-bye.

After bootcamp you are sent to AIT (Advance Individual Training). This is where they start training you for the job you selected. Mine was in communications and it was one of the longest training the Army offered at the time. AIT is more of a scaled down version of basic training. You're allowed to have a car and walk to the PX (Post Exchange) without having to be marched there. Life just got a little easier. However, you were still in that "training" phase.

After AIT, you are given your first set of orders for your first duty assignment. This is where you take the chance of being sent to any and every corner of the globe. While the rest of my class received orders to go to places like Hawaii, Japan, Germany, the Pentagon....I was given orders to report to Seoul, South Korea. ????KOREA???? What the hell was that? Is God out to get me? Is this for something I did when I was a kid? Little did I know, Korea would open my eyes to a whole new world.

Rachel, honey, have you ever flown to another country? It is a totally amazing experience. Aside from the 14 hour plane ride, you find yourself in a new place...a new world. And you almost have to have someone pinch you to make sure you weren't dreaming. You're surrounded my new smells, sights, sounds, tastes, and emotions. Ever hear a song from way back and you feel like you've gone back to that very moment in time?? Ever have a similar experience with your sense of smell or taste?? Very rarely, something along those lines would trigger my senses and I can see myself in Korea, standing in line at the train station waiting for a ride to Seoul...my first duty station.

I will spend the rest of this letter talking about my experiences in Korea as it was the most defining moment in my short military career.

Korea was and still is considered a hardship tour. Hardship meaning that you are not allowed to bring family with you (if you were married) and you were only allowed two weeks of leave (vacation) to fly home and visit. I was there from '93 through the summer of '94. The toughest part was not being able to spend the holidays with my family. For the first time in my 18 years, I would spend the holidays alone. I had to learn quickly that your friends now became your family.

After the Korean war, the country was divided in half. Communist North and a Democratic South. To this day, these two sides are constantly at war (a stand-off) with one another. Keeping the peace was only one of the millions of responsibilities the Army had there.

At first, I hated the fact that I was "stranded" in a foreign country and couldn't visit my family. I didn't see the purpose of having troops stationed here...I mean, everything LOOKED peaceful. However, that all changed after my visit to the DMZ.

DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) is a 5 mile stretch of open plain. It looks more like a desert. And on either side, armed guards stand ready 24hrs a day, 7 days a week. This was the price of freedom. I often wondered to myself just how many soldiers stand guard in hostile countries all around the world while I sleep at night.

Under a communist rule, the poor are neglected. Poverty in North Korea reached a whopping 40% while I was there. We (U.S. Soldiers) often help with food and clothes drives that we would donate to the North. I think that this really says something about human compassion. Even though we were there to defend a foreign country and would shoot down a communist North Korean soldier, we couldn't help but feel helpless for those in need. Even though the people in need possessed a difference in opinion when compared to us, we harbored no hate towards them. War is often started with a difference in opinion and in the midst of a war, the capacity to "care"....it's just an incredible power.


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