South Korea — War Vets Return to Transformed South Korea

SEOUL, South Korea, Sept. 17, 2010 — When Kore­an War vet­er­an Fred Brady, now age 84, had last set foot in South Korea, the coun­try was in the throes of a bru­tal con­flict that left dev­as­ta­tion at every turn.

Army Gen. Walter L.
Army Gen. Wal­ter L. “Skip” Sharp, com­man­der of U.S. Forces Korea, Com­bined Forces Korea and Unit­ed Nations Com­mand, thanks U.S. Kore­an War vet­er­ans attend­ing cer­e­monies mark­ing the war’s 60th anniver­sary through the Korea Revis­it Pro­gram.
DoD pho­to by Don­na Miles
Click to enlarge

A com­bat medic serv­ing with the Army’s 3rd Field Hos­pi­tal, Brady saw the extent of the destruc­tion first-hand as he fol­lowed the fight from the Pusan Perime­ter to Taegu, tend­ing to the wound­ed.

This week, Brady and 139 oth­er Kore­an War vet­er­ans got an eye-open­ing expe­ri­ence as they returned here — almost all for the first time since the war — to par­tic­i­pate in cer­e­monies mark­ing the conflict’s 60th anniver­sary and to see the fruits of their efforts.

They’re guests of the South Kore­an gov­ern­ment, which launched the Korea Revis­it Pro­gram in 1975 to thank Kore­an War vet­er­ans for their sac­ri­fices.

Par­tic­i­pants pay half of their air­fare here, with South Korea’s min­istry of patri­ots and vet­er­ans affairs pick­ing up the rest of the tab, along with the costs of lodg­ing, meals, tours and enter­tain­ment.

In addi­tion to increas­ing the scope of the pro­gram to cor­re­spond with 60th anniver­sary com­mem­o­ra­tions over the next three years, the South Kore­an gov­ern­ment has announced that it will now pay 30 per­cent of the air­fare and all oth­er costs for vet­er­ans’ spous­es or com­pan­ions.

“[This is] the Repub­lic of Korea say­ing, ‘Thank you for all that you did 60 years ago in order for our coun­try to get where it is today,’ ” said Army Gen. Wal­ter L. “Skip” Sharp, com­man­der of U.S. Forces Korea, Com­bined Forces Com­mand and Unit­ed Nations Com­mand.

Brady said he’d planned to bring his wife along for the trip, and admit­ted his chil­dren had to talk him into com­ing after she died in the spring.

But as Brady and his fel­low vet­er­ans attend­ed a lav­ish ban­quet ear­li­er this week, where they were show­ered with thanks by South Kore­an gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary lead­ers as well as Sharp, those reser­va­tions had long since been for­got­ten.

“This is an absolute­ly won­der­ful expe­ri­ence,” said Brady, now a res­i­dent of Grand Isle, La. “I feel so many emo­tions; it’s hard to choose just one to describe it all.”

Like Brady, Ben Jaf­fray, who’d served as an Air Force first lieu­tenant with the 336th Fight­er Inter­cep­tor Wing dur­ing the war, mar­veled at South Korea’s trans­for­ma­tion since he left here 57 years ago.

“The dev­as­ta­tion was total,” recalled 80-year-old Jaf­fray. “What you see here is a mir­a­cle.”

Jaf­fray cred­it­ed the Kore­an peo­ple, whose spir­it and dri­ve have built their war-dev­as­tat­ed coun­try into the world’s 10th-largest econ­o­my with a gross domes­tic prod­uct approach­ing $1 tril­lion. “It’s the atti­tude of the Kore­ans that’s made it pos­si­ble. I saw it then and I see it now,” he said. “There’s a lev­el of enthu­si­asm and joy here.”

“I can’t believe what these peo­ple have done,” echoed Bob Ellenz of Tip­ton, Kan., who is mak­ing his first vis­it here since 1951. “I’m dumb­found­ed,” said the for­mer 8th U.S. Army’s 17th Field Artillery Divi­sion sol­dier.

For Charles Gagnon of Port Ange­les, Wash., a Navy quar­ter­mas­ter dur­ing the war serv­ing under 7th Fleet com­man­der Vice Adm. Alfred Pride, a high­light of the Korea Revis­it Pro­gram has been the oppor­tu­ni­ty to recon­nect with the Kore­an peo­ple. In addi­tion to vis­it­ing the demil­i­ta­rized zone and South Kore­an cul­tur­al sites this week, Gagnon spent a full day meet­ing with young South Kore­an stu­dents and shar­ing sto­ries of his wartime expe­ri­ence here.

“It’s absolute­ly awe­some being here,” he said, admit­ting that he, like Brady, ini­tial­ly had “a lot of reser­va­tions” about mak­ing the trip.

“This is a whole new nation,” he said. “Being able to see it and rec­og­niz­ing that we helped play a part in build­ing it makes me proud.”

The vet­er­ans rev­eled at the recep­tion they’ve received through­out their vis­it.

“I’m hav­ing a fan­tas­tic time,” said Stan Levin of San Diego, a Navy vet­er­an who served on an amphibi­ous assault ship dur­ing the war. “They’re treat­ing us like roy­al­ty. It’s almost embar­rass­ing.”

“This is a won­der­ful trip,” Ellenz agreed. “I’ve enjoyed it so much; I wouldn’t be sur­prised if I end up com­ing back again some­day.”

As they swapped war sto­ries and explored the trans­formed South Korea, the vet­er­ans also took time to remem­ber their bud­dies who nev­er made it home from the Land of the Morn­ing Calm.

“We all lost friends in the war,” Jaf­fray said. “Being here and think­ing about it, you get a lit­tle teary.”

“This is all part of a heal­ing process, being here and get­ting to see this beau­ti­ful coun­try,” said Brady.

James “Jamie” Wied­hahn, son of a Kore­an War vet­er­an who helps to coor­di­nate the U.S. Korea Revis­it Pro­gram, called that emo­tion­al reck­on­ing an impor­tant part of the expe­ri­ence.

“This is an oppor­tu­ni­ty for the vet­er­ans to see that what they went through made a dif­fer­ence,” he said. “It’s clos­ing that chap­ter of the con­flict they live with every night when they close their eyes.”

Mean­while, he said, the pro­gram helps to ensure that the lessons learned dur­ing Kore­an War get passed on to future gen­er­a­tions.

“If we don’t con­tin­ue to learn and study his­to­ry, it is going to hap­pen all over again,” he said. “A big part of this is to show that free­dom isn’t free.”

Sharp, whose father was fight­ing in Korea when he was born in Mor­gan­town, W.Va., said he grew up with that recog­ni­tion, not­ing that he car­ries it with him every day as the top U.S. mil­i­tary offi­cer in South Korea.

When Sharp had learned that he had been select­ed for the top U.S. commander’s job in South Korea, he said, he dug through a cedar chest at his mother’s house to find old pic­tures of his father in Korea, and lat­er shared them with his Kore­an coun­ter­parts.

“I am hon­ored to be able to fol­low in his foot­steps,” Sharp said of his father’s Kore­an War ser­vice, “and to be able to con­tin­ue to see the progress of Korea as we move for­ward from what it was back then to today, to the future with so many changes going on.”

Ear­li­er this week, Sharp thanked the vis­it­ing vet­er­ans for lay­ing the ground­work for South Korea’s mod­ern-day suc­cess.

“The sac­ri­fices that you and your fall­en com­rades made are the real rea­son the peo­ple of the Repub­lic of Korea enjoy the free­dom that we all share today,” he said. “Thank you for all the sac­ri­fices you made. You will always be remem­bered and hon­ored for what we did here.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

More news and arti­cles can be found on Face­book and Twit­ter.

Fol­low on Face­book and/or on Twit­ter