I have a son who is soon graduating from high school and, in the Fall, will be traveling to Seoul, South Korean for the coming academic year as part of the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y). As you may guess, the countries you may go to under this program include Russia, South Korea, China, and more.
He's been given this opportunity following a long application process of interviews and essays, and volunteering his Wednesday afternoons at a local Korean Immersion school helping new fourth grade students - recently emigrated from Myanmar and who speak neither English nor Korean - learn both languages and acclimate to life here.
Acceptance into the NYSL-I program includes a full scholarship to study and immerse himself in Korean language and culture. The program hopes to foster the "necessary linguistic skills and cultural knowledge to promote international dialogue... and provide opportunities to American youth that will spark a lifetime interest in foreign languages and cultures".
While there, he'll live with several different families, go to school, participate in community service projects, and learn everything he can about the language and culture of the Korean people. The intent is to foster peace and understanding by developing leaders who are better equipped to acknowledge, appreciate, and communicate from a deeper cultural perspective and knowledge.
Why am I sharing this on Memorial Day?
I want to give a glimpse of how my son's story of Korea will be vastly different than the experience of my dad, when, at the very same, pivotal time in his life, he graduated from high school, and later found himself on his way to Korea.
My dad will be 88 on Wednesday. Happy Birthday Dad!
The story really begins with his 18th birthday and shortly following his graduation day from high school.
Picture July, 1948 - small town in Central Minnesota - mostly second generation immigrant families from Norway, and Sweden, Germany and Austria - Lutheran and Catholic by faith and proud to be American.
As a graduating senior, male, of 18 or older, you are dressed in a full suit underneath your cap and gown, you walk to center stage, receive your diploma and shake hands. Celebration? Are you thinking...? "Oh the Places You'll Go!"?
How it was...
So, as it goes, soon after your graduation - instead of celebrating this momentous occasion and your bright future, (which is truly a call for celebration as many young men left school early to help support their families and did not complete high school) you are cautious. Relations with the Soviets are tense and actively changing. You are in a limbo state - and in July - a month following graduation, a mandatory draft is called by President Truman. Within days, you are summoned to meet a military escort and you are funneled onto a waiting bus. With nothing but your clothes on your back - you enter the bus, sit down and start you required journey to your mandatory meeting with the Draft Board.
Your future - it's now beginning for you.
You must go.
Within the next few years, many of my dad's classmates were shipped out and into the Korean War. Some never to return alive - others returning wounded and maimed. (And, we should remember that many of the older brothers and fathers of these same young men had died, been imprisoned, or returned injured from WWII while they were in grade school/middle school/ and early high school.)
For my dad, the call came in 1953, when, in early summer, he was shipped off to boot camp and by July, he was on his way to Korea.
For him, however, things rapidly evolved and the scenario changed.
On his flight to Korea, July 27th, 1953, this group of recruits landed in Hawaii to refuel. When they landed the plane, they received news of an armistice between North and South Korean. The Korean War was officially "over”. Their mission changed.
Their new mission would be to continue to Korea to support the transition of South Korea from a country at war to one of re-building and peace.
My dad's always been a great storyteller.
I grew up listening to my dad's stories of his time in Korea with the US Marines.
As a man of curiosity and adventure (and as a "foodie" long before the term was ever coined), most of the stories he shared with me and my siblings about his time in Korea were about the amazing people he met along the way. We saw slide shows and heard stories of a beautiful, exotic country and its people, and the peripheral trips he made to other South Asian countries as an entourage to high-rankers. Through more descriptive stories he gave us landscapes and smells of the countries he visited. He introduced us to Korean, Japanese, and Chinese foods, took us on adventure trips to grocery stores in the "big city" to stock our cupboards with necessary ingredients for cuisines not heard of in Central MN., and nicknamed my oldest brother "Skosh" (meaning "little one" in Korean). Note: I thought this name was normal until I was in high school : ).)
Only rarely did we get a little peek at his real journey while there - the hardships, and challenges, the death and destruction of the people and landscape, and the suffering of the Korean people. Truly, I've only had more than glimpses of this in recent years as I've begun to ask more questions and have had more quiet time with him to have these conversations.
And to be sure, my dad is one of the "last men" if not "the Last Man" standing in his "Korean Last Man's Club". I'm not sure but the prize might just be the honor of living and a bottle of champagne.
His stories are a legacy to our family and, coupled with my mom's sense of adventure and wonder, my parents have gifted their children and many grandchildren with a yearning to know, understand, and be of service to the larger world. Hopefully, in times of peace.
The stories of the difficulties of war and its aftermath - and of the experiences of his friends and veterans that have been a part of his life come out rarely. It's too hard to think often about the suffering of the wounded, missing, and fallen veterans - and the suffering of their families. And, only in the fairly recent past, have I heard of the hidden stories of tragic mental health issues and suicide in this small Central MN community - directly associated with returns from the many wars of my parents lifetime (WWII, Vietnam, Gulf Wars, Afghanistan, Iraq ...) Tragic loss of life in all.
And so, I tell the story of my dad so as not to forget his life's experiences and years of service; and I juxtapose his story to the developing story of my son as a way to remember and be present to his journey - another's journey to the same country - this time hopefully in times of peaceful service.
This is a day and time for reflection. For All of Us.
Today, I Honor and Remember All of the men and women who have served our country and did not return - sent to war through forced drafts or by choice - in war and in its aftermath. I want to especially remember not only those who lost their lives but include those of you who returned alive and continue to suffer with trauma - physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.
And, I want to remember and honor your families.
The price you've paid on our behalf is HIGH.
I am grateful for your service - ALL. Thank You.