Remembering the ‘Forgotten War’

BY: OLIVIA FLYNN

“Many of my friends were already in the war. I chose to go into the war. I was eighteen years old and didn’t realize what I was getting myself into.”

My grandfather, Richard Stone, served as a soldier in the Navy, during the Korean War. We know him as Poppy, but to his fellow soldiers he was just another one of them. The Korean War was fought in the early 1950s following the North Korean invasion of South Korea. In today’s society, keeping up with global news is effortless and accessible, making it easier to be aware of conflicts. However, the news during the Korean War was few and far between, giving Americans only partial information and little concept of the violence that was taking place on South Koreans. In instances like these, sometimes pure recognition of a horrific event is enough to give voice to those who fall victim to it. Although all events like these should be recognized, you truly don’t understand the toll and damage it can have on someone until it is being inflicted on a loved family member or friend. My grandpa is 86, but no one is ever able to guess that because of his amazing personality that can light up a room. His traditional style is one of the best parts about him, getting up every day to read the newspaper and watch the weather channel, while dressing in his ironed slacks and Sperry loafers. Poppy makes the smallest outings exciting and has tried his hardest to continue our family traditions after my grandma passed away six years ago, which I truly appreciate. Not only am I grateful that I was even able to interview him and share his story, but his message is powerful and meaningful and insightful. His words bear witness to all the Korean voices omitted by the American media at the time, as well as the soldiers who went unrecognized and unheard.

The timing of my interview worked out perfectly because my mom was visiting my grandpa for the weekend when I called. My grandfather lives in Palm Springs most of the year and Michigan in the summer, but was in Palm Springs when our interview took place. I was sitting on my bed, surrounded by pillows, with my sister in her bed next to mine. It was 7:30 at night, and I had just taken a break from watching the Oscars so I wouldn’t miss my opportunity to call him. I called my mom and was oddly enough a little nervous, even though I see my grandpa at least six times a year. My mom answered and put me on speakerphone so that both her and my grandpa could hear the questions, while I briefly explained the assignment. I actually found it helpful that my mom was also part of the interview because she was able to ask even more questions that built off of mine, just out of her own pure interest. Although I couldn’t see the two of them over the phone, I knew that they were sitting at the kitchen table next to each other. Just hearing Poppy’s warm voice made me less nervous, but made me a little bit more reluctant to ask him questions that I feared would upset him or make him sad. I had talked to Poppy about his time in the Korean War prior to the interview, but something about the questions I was about to ask him felt deeper than the ones I would normally ask.

I had talked to my grandpa earlier that day just like I usually do, so it didn’t seem like I was just jumping into the interview, not giving him a warning. I started off with easier questions in the hope that I would slowly ease into the questions that were maybe more difficult to answer. I first asked Poppy, “In what years did you serve in the Korean War?”

He immediately knew the years and answered, “I served from 1951 to 1953.” I moved on to the next question but feared that he would give short answers to all of my questions.

I continued on to ask him, “Did you choose to go into the Navy?”

Showing his prominent sense of humor he replied, “Yes, once I hit eighteen I realized that it was better to sleep in a ship than homeless in a hole. No, but really, many of my friends were going into the Navy as well. It was an overwhelming sense of patriotism that clouded any fears we might have had.” Knowing that my grandpa went into the Navy by choice gave me a sense of closure, simply because he wasn’t being forced to do anything he didn’t want to do. As seen in many wars and genocides, both the victim and perpetrator can be forced to do things against their will, leaving both sides angry, depressed, confused.

Although Poppy had mentioned it in many stories before, I asked him, “Were you given a specific job in the Navy?”

I could hear my mom in the background add, “Yeah, Dad, what were you told to do?”

I recognized the sound of my grandpa shifting in his chair as he faced towards my mom to answer, “Well yes, it was a large group of us rather. We were told to look out for enemy submarines which can be somewhat exciting since you didn’t really know where they were coming from.” I sat for a few seconds in shock, thinking of something to say. I didn’t know how to respond to something that seemed so terrifying yet brave.

I have always had a fear of needles, so my grandpa would tell me how in training they would stick a needle in each arm at the same time in order to vaccinate the soldiers and would then continue down the line. For some reason this made me less afraid when I was younger, knowing that if my grandpa could do it, so could I. Remembering this prompted my next question, “Do you remember any details from the training you went through?”

He took a moment to think and then replied, “When hearing about how the war was affecting Korean citizens, it gives you a new sense of the ‘every man for himself’ mentality. You truly learn how to take care of yourself. You learn how to operate equipment, and then are forced to go to school for six months after boot camp in San Diego. Learning to work potentially dangerous equipment as an 18-year-old was kind of like learning to drive. Exciting, but the thing you’re operating comes with a lot of risks.” Having to learn how to operate dangerous equipment would likely make anyone uneasy about the responsibility that it holds. Typical 18-year-olds are nervous about going to college and moving away from home, having to manage their schedule and money. The fact that my grandpa was only 18 years old and was using life threatening weapons, while not knowing if he would ever return home, is truly remarkable and speaks a lot for the many other soldiers who fought alongside Poppy and weren’t as fortunate enough to tell their stories.

Knowing the smaller details about life in the Navy made me wonder about Poppy’s thoughts on his overall Navy experience so I said, “How do you feel your time in the Korean War either affected you positively or negatively?”

He answered rather quickly, stating, “It was definitely positive. I know that’s not what most war veterans would answer, but I was extremely lucky that I walked away without any life lasting injuries. Overall it taught me how to be organized and led to me getting better grades once I went back to college. I don’t know how else I would have learned those skills if I wasn’t part of the Navy.” I was honestly shocked at how relaxed he was while answering all of my questions, and how he felt that it was an overall positive experience. Similar to forgiveness, I think looking at it in a positive light is a way of being able to move on and not allow such a meaningful event to impact life entirely. If I had been involved in a situation such as this one, I don’t know if I would be able to forgive the people who oppressed me. I think I would hopefully try to but you can never really predict your reaction to such a traumatic event.

Hearing my grandpa’s point of view on entering the Navy made me curious about how his family members felt when he announced his decision. I asked Poppy, “How did your friends and family feel about you entering the Navy?”

Poppy stated that “they were pleased because most of my friends were serving as well. I don’t know if my parents were necessarily proud but more pleased than apprehensive.”

I could hear my mom in the background say, “Gosh I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if one of you went into the Army. I would get way too worried about you.” It’s hard to realize how parents should cope with this type of situation because they are overwhelmingly proud, yet overwhelmingly scared as well. It makes you reflect on how the parents in Korea must have felt when watching their kids experience such violence.

Knowing that my mom was going to ask this next, I jumped in and said, “Were you scared or nervous at all before entering the Navy?”

Being the brave person he is, Poppy replied, “No, not really. I didn’t realize the magnitude of the event before I got myself into it. While in the war you don’t really realize how much is at risk for both sides until years afterwards. Looking back one of the more scarier events was while we were stationed off the coast of Korea and our biggest fear was accidentally hitting a mine. Knowing that we could all be blown up in a matter of seconds definitely put us on the edge of our seats.” Hearing this showed me a new side to my grandpa that I had never seen before. I was honestly wondering how he could have handled an event such as that, seeing as he gets super excited whenever we do something such as going out to dinner. He’s such a mellow person that never gets stressed, so to hear this really shocked me, considering that it completely goes against his organized and ritualistic personality.

I ended our interview by asking Poppy, “How did witnessing this event change your life after the war?” For a moment all I could hear was silence on the other side. Not even my mom was chiming in with her usual follow up questions. The interview had gone so well up until the final question and I worried that the silence meant I had hit a sensitive spot.

We gave Poppy a moment to gather his thoughts when he said, “As most things in history, you don’t realize the magnitude of the event until it’s over. Seeing the newspapers and the memorial that was dedicated to the Korean War in Washington D.C, knowing that you were a part of that, puts you in a state of confusion. I think most of all you feel pride and patriotism, but you also realize that it did cause harm to a lot of people that shouldn’t go unrecognized. I’m glad I was able to help in sharing yet another side to the story. You can never hear too many voices.” I was relieved that his silence was because he was formulating his words and not because I had made him upset. Then I realized that throughout the interview I had continuously questioned whether I was asking the right questions in order to get the best answers, when it wasn’t supposed to be about making me feel comfortable or special. I was merely doing the job that thousands of news channels didn’t do and that was to recognize the event for what it was, a mass murdering.

Although some of my grandpa’s answers were fun or lighthearted, he likes to say that it is the honest and authentic way he viewed the Korean War. While unfortunately being traumatic to many people, the story wouldn’t be complete by just hearing them. In order to bring truth and recognition to events like these in history, we need to look at the event as a whole, hopefully helping to prevent further problems in the future. In order to remember stories like these in the future, we need to take responsibility in sharing them now. In order to give younger generations a meaningful connection to these past events, we need to take advantage of the media platforms we have today. The fact that the Korean War is often referred to as the “Forgotten War” makes me furious and sympathetic for not only my grandpa, but for every soldier and victim that died because they should not be remembered as “forgotten.”

One Man’s Experience on the Ocean

BY: CAMI KAPLAN

The ocean is an expansive and largely unexplored place. There are many things that humanity doesn’t know about the ocean, but for a man named Glenn Rivera, the ocean brings about memories and truths that only Glenn and his peers are able to know. About three weeks ago, I walked into my English class and saw on the agenda that my teacher was introducing a new assignment. The agenda said something along the lines of, “Interview Project.” As I saw this, I thought nothing of it. However, as my teacher explained that I would have to interview a refugee or a war veteran, I began to grow nervous. I realized that I didn’t personally know anyone who fell into this criteria. I was nervous because I was afraid that the questions I would ask would evoke a strong emotional reaction out of the interview subject. I didn’t want to make this person feel uncomfortable or remind them of events that they have probably tried hard to forget.

A couple of days later, I told my mom about the project. I asked her if she knew anyone that I could interview. She immediately lit up and said that her good friend Glenn served in Vietnam, and that she would ask him if I could interview him. I had spent the past Friday night having dinner with Glenn and my mother, and I felt generally comfortable around him. I was surprised to find out that he had been in a war where he witnessed many atrocities because he seemed like such a fun and lighthearted and easygoing person, and I never would have expected that he had been through such emotional trauma. It changed the way I viewed him as a person.

On Tuesday, October 14th, Glenn came to our house in Moss Beach, which is near Half Moon Bay. He arrived around 2:30 P.M.. We originally met him because he was our next door neighbor at that house, but he moved a couple of months ago. He had been to this house many times and seemed comfortable in it. To me, Glenn looks like your average 67-year old man. He has gray hair and a short, white beard. He has bright, piercing eyes that are as blue as the ocean. He has tan skin because he spends a lot of time outside. He and his wife were florists in San Francisco before they retired and moved to Moss Beach. Glenn has lived by the coast for the past ten years. Unfortunately, his wife became ill with cancer and passed away shortly after their move. His time in Vietnam was spent on a ship, which was named the USS Bronstein DE 1037. I realized that he has experienced very emotionally traumatizing things while being near or on the ocean, and I wondered if living near the coast brought back difficult memories for him. We sat on the deck of the house, which looks right out over the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, near the famous Mavericks surf spot. I thought that overlooking the ocean would be a good spot for the interview because of the beauty of it, but also because of the relation between the topic of the interview and the ocean. It was a fairly gloomy day, which is typical of Moss Beach. The fog made the view hazy and misty, but the view of the ocean was still clear. Seals and pelicans surrounded the marine reserve, the pelicans plunging in and out of the water and the seals slowly swimming to the surface and then retreating.

I started the interview with asking if the experience was difficult for him to talk about.

He responded with, “No, it’s not difficult to talk about for me. Being a veteran is not a big part of my identity, and I don’t really talk about it much.”

This did not surprise me since I had known him for a few months and did not know he was a veteran until I started this project.

I asked, “Did you enlist or were you drafted?”

He said that he was drafted at the age of nineteen.

After learning the small details, I said, “This may be a very vague question, so feel free to interpret it however you want to. What was your war experience?”

He looked out on the ocean and it seemed like he was contemplating if he should respond more factually, or more personally.

After a few seconds, he said, “I was on the USS Bronstein DE 1037. We were stationed in the Tonkin Gulf off of North Vietnam.  We were assigned escort duty for aircraft carriers and Anti Submarine Warfare patrols. We would pick up pilots shot down on bombing missions that made it back over the ocean, and we would rescue pilots who crashed on take off. When we were in the war zone, there were long days and nights supporting the air campaign, bombing the capital city of Hanoi and Hyphong Harbor. At night, we could see the flashes of explosions from bombs dropped by the Navy jets.”

Appearing deep in thought, he never looked away from the ocean as he said this. I thought that he was able to imagine what had happened because he could look out on the ocean, which was where all of these events happened. I wished that he would share what he was thinking with me, but I did not want to invade his privacy. It was apparent that he decided to answer the question factually rather than personally.

Trying to change this, I asked, “What were your thoughts during the war, and how did your thoughts change as the violence continued?”

He said, “At first, my thoughts were, ‘We are just doing the job we were trained for.’ We were at war. Later, my thoughts changed. I thought, ‘What a great waste of young lives on both sides.’”

Because he said “on both sides”, I was provoked to ask, “Did your experience lead to any prejudices?”

He said, “No, not that I recall.”

This did not surprise me, because Glenn has always seemed like a very accepting and down-to-earth person. He seemed to have a very objective and neutral perspective of the war, believing that he was just doing his job. He continued to look out on the ocean while he said all of this. Judging his facial expression, it didn’t seem like he was feeling very emotional. He spoke about this as if he realized that he was giving a very perverse view on the experience of war, and believed that everyone else should adopt this view. I decided to start focusing on what happened after he left Vietnam. He remained calm and fairly expressionless.

I asked, “What difficulties, if any, did you have in adjusting back to normal life?”

He replied, “The only difficulty was that our return back to the U.S. was met with protests rather than a welcome. This was a little difficult, but it did not bother me that much. The transition back to America was okay. I just wanted to be with family and get back in school, which I did. It wasn’t very difficult for me.”

Trying to get more out of him, I asked, “After you had gone through this experience, how did it affect you in your personal life?”

He replied, “I just wanted to get on with my life.”

While he answered these questions, he looked at me rather than the ocean. We did not make much eye contact because I spent a lot of time writing, but when I did glance up, he had a very stern expression on his face. It seemed as if this expression was forced, and that he was holding back some shred of emotion. I was determined to get to this shred.

I might have been too direct, but I asked, “Did your war experience affect you emotionally in any way?”

He took a deep breath and looked down at the notebook that I was writing on.

He said, “Honestly, it did not affect me long-term very much. However, in the short-term, it was difficult because I lost many high school friends. They were killed in action. All I could think was, ‘what a waste.’ Looking back on what I saw, it was a huge loss of life for no good reason.”

Inside, I rejoiced because I had succeeded in getting that shred of emotion out of him. I was glad because he seemed comfortable when telling me this, and I tried my best to continue to make him feel comfortable.

I said, “Your view on the war seems to be different than the majority of Vietnam veterans’. Since you saw what was happening as just your job, maybe it allowed you to escape the emotional trauma that many others endured.”

He agreed with me. He put his hands on his lap and crossed his legs. He finally had an expression on his face, but it looked like it was an expression of happiness. He glanced out at the ocean for a few more seconds while I finished up my notes.

We both thanked each other and proceeded to go inside with my parents and his dog named Frankie, who he takes everywhere. Looking back on the interview, I feel that Glenn’s thoughts on the war are very refreshing. He saw the war as a waste of lives, which I agree with, but he also seemed to have accepted that this is the way the world is. The world is full of war and atrocities, but that is just the way it is. People are capable of horrible evil and violence, but it is inevitable when people are in positions of power. Glenn did not blame himself for any harm that he may have contributed to, but rather sees it as just a part of his job, and as his duty as an American citizen.

From this interview, I learned the difficulties of being a war veteran. Losing friends and loved ones was the most difficult part for Glenn. However, I am aware that many war veterans suffer from PTSD because they witnessed such horrible atrocities. This interview relates to being a witness because Glenn is expressing and publicizing his war experience through me. Though I did not witness these events, I am helping to raise awareness about what happened in Vietnam and the experience of the soldiers who fought in it. It is important to memorialize this event in writing to ensure that it is never forgotten, and to help to prevent other wars in the future. In a way, I am a witness because I have written something that bears testimony and gives voice to silence. Glenn’s story had only been told to those close to him, and it is important for me to bring his story to life and give others the opportunity to hear it too. I am attempting to preserve the history of the war through Glenn’s experience, and trying to make his experience meaningful and relatable for others in order for them to understand the importance of the war. The global and local lessons that I have learned from this are that humanity should strive for peace and try to keep the memory of atrocities alive, so that they can act as a warning to future generations. When one witnesses cruelty, they should always try to intervene and speak up about it. It is crucial to not remain silent because allowing horrible atrocities to be forgotten is like allowing the perpetrators to get away with their crimes. This sends a message to the world that it is acceptable to inflict suffering on others, which could cause even worse cruelty in the future. In my daily life, I will never hesitate to speak up about the things that I witness or have witnessed in the past.

The most difficult part of this interview was trying to get Glenn to open up. If I were to do this again, I would have let him know that I am interested in the factual components, but mostly the emotional components of his war experience. Because I talked directly to a witness, I felt the true authenticity of his story. Coming from the direct source, the whole story was a lot more interesting than if it hadn’t been from the direct source. I felt empathy for Glenn, which helped me to understand his experience and emotions better. I feel that I captured the literal and emotional truth of this person’s experience, but more of the literal than the emotional. This happened because Glenn did not have many emotional reactions to the war, or possibly because he was not comfortable with opening up to me.

 

Enlisted

BY: MARIA NACLERIO

“I don’t have any regrets or feel bad about anything I did over there.” There was certain fierceness in my cousin’s voice that I had never heard before. In 2003, President George W. Bush sent troops into Iraq to disarm alleged weapons of mass destruction and end a reign of terrorism supported by Saddam Hussein. When my 32-year-old cousin was 19, he enlisted in the army. When he was 24, Brian was deployed to Iraq where he served for 17 months. He served in Mosul, a city in northern Iraq for 12 months. Less than a week before Brian was supposed to go home, his tour was extended and he was told that he had to go to Baghdad for an additional 5 months. Initially, I was scared to interview Brian for this project. He had never spoken to me about his experience, and my parents told me he did not like to talk about it. I had a preconceived notion that war was generally a dark experience for veterans and something they wanted to forget. Brian has always been somewhat of a protective older sibling figure in my life, and I was unsure if he would be willing to display vulnerability by sharing his experience.

My hand trembled as I picked up my phone to call Brian. I pictured his soft face and kind eyes as he answered. We caught up as he told me about how his two kids were doing, and I told him about my junior year. I joked about how my 83-degree March in California was unbearable compared to his 7-degree spring in Alaska. He laughed like a little kid as I remembered my purpose in calling him. I told him about the assignment and asked my first question.

“Why did you enlist in the military?”

“I was on a mixed path,” Brian responded. “I didn’t have a good direction and I had always pictured myself doing it as a little kid. I wasn’t doing much else, I guess.”

Joining the military is a common path in my family. My grandpa served in the army for 20 years, my aunt is an army doctor, my dad served in the Navy and Air Force, and another cousin of mine is in the National Guard and worked with the Army Special Operations Force.

“What were your fears going into Iraq?” I asked.

“I was 24. I didn’t have any fears. I thought it wouldn’t be that bad, but it was way more intense than I thought it would be. You get there and you think you’re bulletproof, and then the longer you’re there the scarier it gets. At the time, I didn’t feel fear. Looking back I have more fear. You just kinda go with emotions you feel at the time and don’t really think about it.”

“What was your typical day?”

“We usually spent 6-8 hours driving out meeting with people, and then at night you would do raids where you would capture the people you were looking for and then go home and do it again the next day.”

“What was involved in a raid?”

“We would block off a neighborhood so nobody could get out, and then we would search for weapons and torture chambers.”

Brian’s tone of voice did not change. He stated it matter of factly; finding torture chambers was a regular day on the job. I closed my eyes and thought about dancing with my smiling cousin on his wedding day and joking with him at family dinners. Most of the time I spend with my cousin involves laughing, playing Wii golf, and making fun of my brothers. It was difficult to imagine him raiding towns and driving armored vehicles. I had always viewed him as one of the kids, but I could feel this image changing throughout the interview.

“When you first went in, did you think the American mission would work?” I asked.

“Yeah, I think you kind of have to. You kind of want to believe everything you do is for a reason. So my friends didn’t die for no reason. I don’t think we were there for what they said, because we didn’t find what they sent us in for. I tried to justify.”

“How did the local people perceive the conflict?”

“It was a really mixed bag of people. Some had a third grade education level and hated us and couldn’t understand why we were there. The old people seemed really happy we were there. There were more problems there than just terrorism.”

“What kind of problems?”

“The whole thing struck me as very corrupt. You could pay anybody for anything. Everybody was trying to get a pay off. The country is really dangerous and really corrupt. We were there for the first real election; that was really rewarding. We did a lot of good things over there.” Brian continued to tell me about how he made the cities more secure, the neighborhoods safer, and the soldiers more self-reliant. I could hear pride and strength in his voice.

I was scared to ask my next question, but I heard him shuffling in his chair so I continued.

“What was your most vivid memory?”

“There’s a lot of death, I guess. There was a little girl we picked up that was shot pretty bad and that was very vivid.”

I could hear a strain in Brian’s voice for the first and only time in the interview. He took a breath and his voice hardened again.

“Most of them were pretty horrific.”

I was unsure whether or not to pry into his other vivid memories. His voice had regained its steady tone, and his guard was back up. I decided to move on to my next question.

“How has your experience changed you?”

“Things aren’t as important as people make them out to be. I don’t get stressed out, and I let things slide now. It could be a lot more serious.” I quickly scribbled down his response and was about to ask my next question when he continued.

“Religion is a hard thing for me now. Seeing everybody kill each other over religion. Religion growing up was a big part of my life…I haven’t found a way to process it.” He paused for a moment. “It’s kind of hard for me to figure out for myself much less talk to you about it. But I was not changed in a bad way. I don’t have any regrets or feel bad for anything I did over there.”

“Do you wish you could have done anything differently?”

“No. You look back on things, and I was a squad leader so everyday you had to make decisions about where to put people. But you have to live with them. You make decisions and they get shot and you have to live with it. No, I don’t think I would change anything I did over there.”

I was shocked by this and felt the hard edge of my dining room chair pressing into my leg as a leaned back and stared at the clouds tinged pink from the setting sun. Regret was something I expected to hear a lot about in this interview. Instead, he seemed to move on from the bad parts of his experience and focus on the good. I wondered how he would perceive the events that are ensuing in Iraq right now.

Currently, violence in Syria is spilling into Iraq, the government is proving to be highly dysfunctional, and extremist terrorists are still a threat. I asked Brian what he thought of the situation.

“It’s hard reading the news. The situation is a tough one. Seeing all your hard work go down the drain. Something has to be done, what’s going on over there ain’t right. My friends are still deployed over there, so hopefully we can help.”

“What kind of relationship did you form with the people you served with?”

“It’s a bond that I will never have with anybody else. My idea of family…it’s a deep bond.”

“What is your hope for the future of Iraq?”

“I hope they get on their feet with terrorism and violence. The religious fight is ridiculous, how they kill each other over it. I as a father should have the same worries as an Iraqi father, not having to worry about my kids getting shot.”

I thanked Brian for the interview, and we promised to visit each other soon. I had never thought of my cousin as a stereotypical soldier. He laughed, smiled, and joked too much. His face did not have sharp enough edges, and he was close with his extended family. Through this interview, my perception of what it means to be a soldier and witness drastically changed. Brian went into the army as a lost teenager and came out as a man. I expected that as a witness of war, Brian would feel victimized and traumatized. He definitely experienced trauma, but he did not let it consume him. Unlike many witnesses, Brian chose to be a soldier. As part of his job, he had to justify what he was doing. Brian went into Iraq to help a struggling country, and that is exactly what he did. Instead of seeing small details, Brian saw the big picture. Instead of seeing a dying soldier, he saw a more secure Iraq. Brian’s story illustrates that soldiers do not fit a mold. It shows that people must move on and forgive themselves so they can live without regret. Most of all, it gives a voice to those who voluntarily put themselves in danger to help others and have the strength to see the entire perspective of a situation.

I Am Proud of Myself

BY: YUJU SHIN

“I just wanted all of them to be dead. I wanted to end the war. Blood splattered on my face whenever I killed someone. There were dead bodies everywhere.” As my grandfather started to break down, the silence of pain and nervousness came. I did not know what to say as the situation became more extreme. We just held on to our phones and said nothing. I could feel my grandfather’s spirit and soul as I heard his heavy, experienced breathing.

Every weekend, I call my grandparents in Korea to say hello. When my English teacher Ms. Gonzalez introduced the Interview Project and told us to find a refugee or a war veteran, my grandfather, Im-Chun Lee, came up to my mind. My grandfather, who turned eighty-five two months ago, served in the Korean War sixty-four years ago, in 1950. After serving in the war, he worked as a police officer and now retired, he lives peacefully with my grandmother in a small apartment in the city of Daegu. Since I was young, he never talked about his war experience and always avoided topics related to it. Because I wasn’t exposed to a lot of war stories and never saw other war veterans talking about it, I thought Koreans were ashamed of their past. The only source where I acquired information about the Korean War was from my school history textbooks and documentaries that are played every year on the commemoration day. I wasn’t sure if it would be fine to interview my grandfather because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings and make him depressed. However, I wanted to hear the real story from a witness, not through words of non-living objects. In September, I stepped up and called my grandfather for permission. Fortunately, he said yes and I promised him that I would call him in October.

For a little bit of background before I start, the Korean War started on June 25, 1950, at 4 a.m. Before, Korea was divided into two countries after Korea gained independence from Japan in 1945. The North was supported by the Soviet Union, and the South was assisted by the United States. On the day of the war, North Korean forces led by its new leader, Il-Sung Kim, invaded South Korea. The war ended in 1953, taking ten million souls and establishing the Korean Demilitarized Zone and Military Demarcation Line. Unlike other wars, the Korean War was a war between a homogeneous ethnic group, sharing the same roots of culture, food, and language. It is the most painful memory in the Korean history, because one country was split into two enemy countries.

On October 14, I was making up my mind whether if I should call my grandfather or not. To be honest, I was scared to interview him and kept postponing the day of the interview. I lay down on my bed and covered my face with a pillow not knowing what to do, but I knew that I would eventually have to make this interview before the fall break was over. When I looked at the clock, it was 3:20 p.m., which meant it was 7:20 a.m. in Korea. I didn’t call him right away even though I had nothing else to do because I did not want to ruin my grandfather’s day by bringing up his bloody memories. At 11:30 p.m. in Pacific Daylight Time, I sat on my bed, covered my body with a blanket, held a pencil and a piece of paper, and picked up my phone to dial my grandparents’ phone number. I felt cozy and comfortable with dim lighting in my room. It was 3:30 p.m. in Korea, and I finally pushed the call button. My nervousness increased as the beep sound continued.

“Hi Yuju! How are you? I’ve been waiting for you to call me,” he said with excitement. As usual, we told each other the latest news about our lives and any interesting stories. When we were done with sharing our stories, I asked him if this is a good time for him to share his war memories and he said yes.

“Grandpa, I heard it’s really cold in Korea! Is it true?” I asked. I didn’t want to start my interview just straight with my questions. I didn’t want to bring him down, so I tried to avoid using stimulating words like “the Korean War” or “deaths.”

“Yes, summer is gone in Korea. Leaves are falling and it will snow soon,” he said. “Your mom told me that it’s still hot in the United States.”

“Was it this cold during the war?” I was supposed to ask this question later in the interview, but I thought it would be a good transition to the interview.

“Now I think about it, there were a lot of funny memories during one of the winters and now I can smile about it. One day, I was only wearing my underwear and I had to get trained. I was always cold and hungry. Even though the food we had to eat was gross, everything looked delicious to me. I even found this bland soup with nothing in it taste like heaven! I don’t miss it because now it would taste bad. I have better food to eat.”

“I bet you don’t miss those soups anymore. Um, what was your first reaction to the war?”

“My family and I lived in Paju, which is an hour north from Seoul. It was a peaceful Sunday. If there were no guns firing, I would be sleeping peacefully with my brothers. Before the sun was up, I heard bombs exploding from the northern mountains, and when I looked out the window, everything was chaos. People were running around to nowhere with their belongings on their backs. I stayed home with my family hiding in our bedroom. I was only nineteen years old and I was really scared.”

I didn’t feel like asking more questions because I could already feel that he did not want to talk about it. However, I wanted to finish my task without giving up, so I continued and asked, “How did you end up joining the military?”

“Bombs dropped in front of my house and we all panicked with dust covering our faces. I was a student at that time, and everything seemed bizarre to me. I was still wearing my school uniform, and a soldier gave me a gun. No one ever taught me how to shoot, so I just held it not knowing what to do. I still remember this. Where I lived was one of the first places to get attacked, and all men in my town had to fight. Most of them were amateurs. I can still remember because I mean, how can I forget? I had to watch my friends and brothers die,” he said. “My eyes became watery and hot as I saw rivers turning into blood.”

When these severe words came out of his mouth, I could see his mournful soul struggling to fight against his painful memories. However, his voice was so deep and confident that I saw light in it. He was fearful, but still hopeful.

“Can you talk about your experiences during the battle?” I asked hesitantly. I realized that I was still scared to ask him questions because I didn’t want to hear his response. I worried that his answers would hurt both of us, which I didn’t want. I really wanted to stop the interview, but another part of myself didn’t let me.

“I had many roles and I moved from place to place. At first, I fought as a foot soldier near Seoul, killing North Koreans. As I told you earlier, I did not have any experience with guns and I was really scared. Later, when they sent me to Daegu, I got a different job. I was trained until the North Koreans got here, and my mission was to kill North Korean spies. I had to kill many,” he said. Even though I couldn’t see his face, he sounded tired and depressed already. I imagined him sitting on a sofa holding my grandmother’s hands.

“How did you feel?”

“When my friend died, I didn’t have time to get sad because everything went crazy. I didn’t have time to think and when he was shot, I just looked at him and went on with my battle. It would be a lie if someone became upset about it because clearly, no one had time to think. I just had to fight. When my fellow soldier was shot, I thought I could die anytime. It was real. I never thought this would happen to me, but this was the reality. I couldn’t believe the situation I was in, but everything I saw and heard was about the war.” He paused for a few seconds and continued, “When I was fighting, I was not afraid of death. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to see my family again. I had to live and survive for my family and myself. I can still imagine people screaming and dying. There were a lot of dead bodies that I can remember.”

Then he suddenly said, “I just wanted all of them to be dead. I wanted to end the war. Blood splattered on my face whenever I killed someone. There were dead bodies everywhere.”

Again, there was a moment of silence. My eyes became watery and I lost my words. On my bed, not knowing what to say, I heard my grandfather’s heavy breathing and weeping. I felt pain in my heart while asking these questions, but I continued.

“Do you regret what you did?”

“No. That’s what I had to do for my country. Everyone who fought should be proud of what they did,” he said and stopped. It seemed like he did not want to talk more about it. I already could feel that his memories were torturing him, and I knew it was hard for him to take it. I finalized the interview with my last question.

“Do you have any thoughts?”

“I just want you to know that I am proud that I fought in the Korean War. I am not ashamed of what I did. I feel sorry for my brothers and friends who died. Sometimes, I have nightmares about it and wake up in the middle of the night screaming, but I don’t regret what I did during the war. Every June 25th, I become sad and tearful. In my mind, the war isn’t over yet, but it will remain forever in my heart. It wasn’t my choice that I had to kill my enemies, and it wasn’t their choice either. We are all the same and everyone was a witness to death.”

Our interview ended when my grandfather started to sound like he was going to cry. He was a strong and hopeful man. It was really hard for me to listen to his story, and I can’t believe that this really happened. My grandfather had to kill innocent people who were just the same as him. He also had to witness others getting killed, and they all had families. Because he is my grandfather, I could feel a greater connection to the war and sense how the soldiers had to deal with the struggles they faced during the war. When my grandfather said that war itself was not something we should be proud of, but what the soldiers did is something we shouldn’t be ashamed of, I realized that he was giving me a lesson on how it’s important to be proud of what I do. I am proud that my grandfather fought in the war and glad that I got to interview him. If I had to interview other war veterans, it would have been really hard because I don’t like hurting people’s feelings and making uncomfortable situations.

Currently, no one talks about the war in Korea, and it seems like younger generations don’t have connections to it. Later, the Korean War will be gone from people’s hearts forever since there aren’t a lot of books based on the war or interviews with war veterans. When I heard my grandfather’s story, I thought more people should talk about it, because these shouldn’t be forgotten in our history. Before I interviewed him, I, like other younger Koreans, thought that it is just a story and a history that no longer lives in my heart. My grandfather’s story was authentic, and if more war veterans share their experiences, more people would take interest. These stories teach people valuable lessons that they should be proud of what they do.

Realization of Demons

BY: MICHAEL RAPOPORT

I was nervous when I made the phone call to Mr. Mclain Brown, a former United States Marine who had served in Afghanistan from 1988 to 1989, in addition to Kuwait during the Gulf War, between 1990 and 1991. Anxiety took over me, but I was also excited to learn about his story and experiences. I was particularly anxious because of the questions I was going to be asking and hoping that I would not cross any boundaries.

I called and he did not pick up, so my nerves were freaking out. I left a message saying that I would call back in a few minutes. A cascade of thoughts ran through my head, and I feared that I would not be able to complete this interview. I kept looking at my desktop clock and waiting for the time to go by. I fidgeted with my pencil, looked out the window at the trees, and what had felt like five minutes was 45 seconds. My stress got the best of me, and I ended up calling him back within a minute. This time he answered.

When he picked up the phone, he was very lively and apologized for not picking up my previous call. He mentioned that the signal was bad where he currently was and I immediately pictured him on a hike, or outside sitting at a picnic table in the woods.

After breaking the ice, we dove right into the interview. “What were your reasons for enlisting in the military?” I asked.

“I figured the military would be a good choice for getting good training and the experience and also to get away, so, pretty much for those two reasons.”

He went straight to the point and explained that the relationships within his family and his circle of friends were not ideal. He was working a full time job in high school, so education took a backseat and he “needed to focus on survival.” When talking about this, his voice barely wavered, and he was extremely at ease with sharing his life.

“What was your first impression when you were in that situation—such as facing violence, trauma, and fear?”

“You just do your job,” Mr. Mclain Brown replied. “There isn’t any immediacy of war. As I said, we got shot at, we had a couple of scope missiles launched at our base. We had some real moments of being scared and thinking that we would die. I think you don’t really understand what it is that you’re going through. At the time you just do your job and you pay attention to that and that’s it,” he added. “You’re trained very well, and part of that training is desensitizing to your own needs so that you can continue the job that you were trained to do.”

He answered very calmly, but when he began to talk about the training, he stopped briefly to think about it, as if he were recalling what he had undergone years ago. I expected this answer since I have researched and seen examples of military training, and it is exactly how Mr. Mclain Brown describes it. They push you over the edge and farther, but in the end that training keeps those soldiers alive when they are put in difficult situations.

“You’re numb to a lot of that stuff [safety to oneself], but then you have to unpack all of that stuff and that’s what I have been doing for the past twenty years…. The emotional weight of all that is enormous and it takes…twenty to forty years to unpack everything that we need to unpack emotionally.”

Again, he began to pause in between phrases more and more, and this worried me. I felt that we had delved in too deep as he began to remember his past, but he continued with a steady voice. I was mainly afraid because one of the biggest questions was coming up.

“What was your most vivid experience or memory?” I asked slightly hesitantly.

“One of our guys, from our unit, committed suicide. He shot himself in the head in front of me…”

Right when I asked I heard him falter for a bit. He began to recall the incident, and it clearly brought back strong feelings. I was shocked. I was really interested and I should have lain off, but in my interest and inexperience with interviews, I wanted to know more about what occured.

“Was it because of PTSD, or was it ever investigated?”

“I have some idea. He… he was a guy that… a lot of people picked on. He didn’t quite fit in very well with a lot of people. He was a relatively new guy…. I think he came there with a lot of problems already and then that just probably sent him over the edge.”

Again, as he began to grasp for words and pause more often, I thought I had taken it too far. I had also begun to realize the stress of war. Not only are there large amounts of stress from being in danger, but also from daily actions and interactions that we civilians take for granted. I never thought about the army being a tough place to fit into, so when I heard this I was in awe that something so terrible could happen. When preparing for the next question I stuttered a bit, being afraid to push farther.

“After you had completed your tour of duty, how did it affect you in your personal life?”

“Wow, um… I tried to get back and fit myself into my normal routine, and I couldn’t,” he said. “I started to have issues with superiors. I was very belligerent, very angry and I didn’t know why….”

I thought I had delved too deep, as he began to stutter and look for words to describe his experience. I knew that veterans’ adjustment back into society is tough not only to undergo, but also to discuss. Except, Mr. Mclain Brown continued to talk about it.

“Then I talked with one of our chaplains, and he suggested I go to this course called CRATO, which is Latin for belief…. It was a retreat for service men and women who had experienced trauma in some form or another…. I was almost finished serving all my time that I had signed for, so I was close to getting out,” he added. “So, I went to this and it made a big difference for me in understanding that I had a problem. So that was the first step, but then there was a long time, even after I got out, there was a long time between me taking that first step and that second step.”

This is what I was most interested about: the rehabilitation back into normal life and normal routines. I knew that most veterans struggle with their demons, like they are having an endless brawl, but with themselves. The variety of methods that veterans use to cope with these demons is innumerable.

“So when I got back, I got discharged from the military…. I tried to go back to my old life and my old friends, who were still doing the same stuff that they were doing when I left them, years before…. That wasn’t me anymore…. I was changed. I started getting in fights with people I was friends with my whole life…. I started slowly, detaching myself from my family…. I was becoming more and more reclusive, more and more firm….”

I began to understand how difficult being a veteran is, since they have to cope with all the memories from combat as well as adapt to their old life when they are a completely changed person. He mentioned before that the training also deeply affects them since not only are the exercises meant to train them physically but also mentally, and they become accustomed to that. So, when they try to slide back into normal life, they cannot let go of those memories.

“Do you feel that you have emotional or physical scarring from the events?”

“Oh, absolutely. I had three different surgeries; I got injured while I was there, so I eventually had to get out, I did all my time, but I got out on a medical discharge because I was no longer able to do the job that I was trained to do because of my injuries. I had three complete rotator cuff surgeries. I eventually blew out a disc in my back, so I had two surgeries on my back. You know, I have a limited range of motion and my lifestyle by those injuries, certainly, I’m luckier than most,” he added. “You know, I stay active and I’m physically fit, but… it took me twenty something years to unpack the emotional baggage that I had as a result of my time in the Marines. Not just in the time of war but also outside of that as well.…”

The physical repercussions of war are undeniable, but people tend to focus on them more than the mental and psychological consequences. Clearly the physical effects are great, but if it takes twenty years to “unpack the emotional baggage,” maybe people should focus on them as well. Although people are better at recognizing these problems today, there are still countless veterans who struggle with their very existence because of these dilemmas.

“Being in the military, a lot of people have really fantastic experiences because the people they’re with are fantastic people and you know it’s like anything in life, sometimes you’re in with a group of people that are just bad news and you can’t change the people who you’re with,” he replied with a laugh. “I did not have a good experience. While I am proud of having served, very proud of having served, and very proud of being in the Marines, because I felt that I regained my personal integrity throughout my whole experience, it was not easy. It was a very difficult… dramatic six years of my life.”

When he said this, I connected the military with a lot of “human” things, because when I think of the military it sometimes seems “inhuman” to me. The things that they do are just out of this world, but when Mr. Mclain Brown mentioned something as simple as being with the right crowd, I really began to understand the veteran’s perspective on the military. As mentioned above, people do have great memories of their tour, but I never really thought someone could have a terrible experience, because when I think of the military I think of a family who unites against a common evil. It completely changed my perspective on the “togetherness” of the armed forces.

“That said… I’m in a much better place now, obviously, than I’ve ever been. I have a great relationship with my wife; I have an eight-month-old daughter now. I never thought before in my life that I would be able to be a healthy, happy person, and I can call myself that now. It’s not to say that you still don’t have struggles… It’s Veterans Day coming up and certain days of the year, certain times of the year are harder for me than others because I reflect too much on things that happened in the past and I get depressed,” he distantly replied. “So those moments still happen, but I have good tools to deal with those things, and I can actually talk about those things now and I can write about them. Writing for me is my primary way of dealing with my PTSD.”

This is what I imagined he would say, because I knew before the interview that he had struggled with PTSD and had been dealing with his past for much of his life. This is the response that I usually imagine getting from a veteran. I always imagine them telling me that they have not forgotten what they underwent, but they have not overcome that obstacle of complete rehabilitation. This trend is common among veterans and refugees alike.

“Is your experience difficult for you to talk about because you are open about it now, but when you first got out was it difficult?”

“I didn’t talk about it… As a soldier, as a Marine, you’re taught to conceal, not reveal. Revealing is exposing yourself, and exposing yourself is dangerous, because you would get killed. That’s a physical lesson you learn in your training, but it’s also an emotional lesson. I fully believe that there is nothing we do with our physical self that doesn’t have a mirror image emotionally. They’re tied together; you can’t separate the two. Whatever you do to your body, you do to your soul.”

This blew me out of the water. The depth that Mr. Mclain Brown revealed about his past amazed me. I have never met anyone else that had the same idea that he presented. Although the thought of not talking about it and keeping your experiences boiling inside you is common among veterans, the connection to the training they underwent I had never heard or thought about. After he told me this, he got lost in his own thoughts since he asked me to repeat the question. I was happy but, again, edgy, as I thought I was losing him. His voice was cheerful, which reassured me and we continued.

“It wasn’t difficult [talking about my experiences] because I did not do it at all. Complete avoidance. It was difficult when… when I realized I needed help. When I got to the point where I felt like there wasn’t any purpose in anything that I was doing, so why should I even be alive? Nothing makes sense to me. When I got to that point I knew I needed help and I needed help now.”

I have read about this dynamic among veterans a lot and know that it is especially difficult for people to go out and find the help that they need. The only reason they begin to feel that way is because they have not talked about it with someone else.

“Do you have any regrets?”

“That is an interesting question because there is no easy answer to that question. Some people have the philosophy ‘no regrets’ … when you leave that situation you have ‘no regrets.’ Regret is also to some people, depending on your definition, some people regret is defined by wishing you could go back and do things differently, and most people would agree on that definition. You’re sorry that things turned out the way they did, which I am, but I wouldn’t go back and change anything simply because everything that happened had to happen for me to realize to be the person I am now, and I can’t ‘what if’ myself. I can’t change that… I don’t see any positive outcome to that question. So I don’t have any regrets. I live my life in the now, as much as I possibly can, and try to be the best person I can be every day.”

I was speechless. This is some of the best advice I had ever heard, and it answered my following questions as well. After this, the interview was over, and it could not have ended on a better note.

I think that Mr. Mclain Brown is a hero for what he has gone through. He is clearly strong-willed because not every veteran can deal with the monsters that come home with him or her. I felt liveliness to his voice, but whenever he delved deep into conversation about his past, he paused to gather his thoughts and maybe even his emotions, because although he has been able to heal himself, he still has not completely recovered. I commend him for taking those steps towards a better life and waking up every morning and striving to be the best person he can be every day. The ghosts that haunt him are no mere joke, and the fact that Mr. Mclain Brown has made great strides in overcoming them is very inspirational. I am humbled that he shared his experiences with me.