Two years ago, I was talking to one of my best friends, Rohan Pavuluri, about what I would achieve during my 21 months in the army. After some back and forth, we came to the conclusion that in May of 2017, I would have a book ready to be published. The drafts would come and go between us, the edits and Skype calls with a publisher introduced by our mentor and decorated author, Walter Stahr, would ensure that I would be ready to share an experience of a lifetime with millions of readers. This hypothetical success would also presumably help me fund myself with the capital necessary to hit the ground running once I was ready to drop out of school and be Mark Zuckerberg 2.0, and so on.
As it turns out, I have no book. I don’t have the material to write a story like Tim O’Brien, and I will have to disappoint my talented sophomore year roommates, Gabe Hurwitz and Mayer Chalom, for not coming home with the right material for them to direct the next big film or compose a magnificent symphony that could only be paralleled in their ideological complexity of grappling with war by the Guernica. What’s more, I had goals and aspirations beyond writing a book. I thought I would have my life together, figured out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, studied enough computer science by writing code with pen and paper in my sleeping bag to do it with my eyes closed, found out the meaning of words like courage and love, or at least read enough books to quote Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky at cocktail parties with panache. None of these came to realization, and in that regard, I suppose I failed.
Instead, I gained some things I never thought I would.
I remember, on August 3rd of 2015, I was told I was given a new identity. I imagined myself mimicking royalty who list the names of their fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfather before theirs. 28REG 11COY 3PLAT 3SQ #154 was my full name. Joon, Hyuk, and Yang were set aside.
I remember, as someone who wears a t-shirt in late November Boston, the record-breaking heat and my hair mowed down to 3mm provided optimal conditions for my sweat to soak every fiber of the clothes I wore and would wear for the next three days until I was finally handed army-issued training gear. Breathing in the stench of 14 others, I lied on that wooden floor in a pool of my own sweat or perhaps a cocktail with #153 and #155, wondering if I had made the worst mistake of my life.
I remember, a day into my placement into the 26th Mechanized Infantry, on the day of my birthday, I drank 21 cups of water and gave a toast to Private Yang in the mirror, saying 21 months was going to go by quick. I remember my 22nd birthday, spent with the boys from Alpha squad in Lebanon, wishing the moment would never end.
I remember, how humility and patience came, the former took no more than a few weeks to settle in, the latter, which I lacked, took the full length of my service to nest deep inside me. I learned what it feels like to be treated without dignity, seen as unworthy, stupid, and low. I learned to walk into a restaurant, and before looking at the menu or taking in the scent of the dishes, to look at the glistening tiled floor and the shine of the glass door and windows, and truly understand what it takes to smile and approach every smudge, every fingerprint, every wet sole, every trash, every gum stuck to the floor.
I remember, when I realized how small of a gear piece I was—a completely replaceable metal scrap, a yes-man to orders (the motto “if it doesn’t work, make it work” buttered and melted into me), and to do the exact opposite of what high school and college had taught me. I learned to never question anything. So I wrote—I wrote thoughts, questions, answers, reflections, hopes, dreams, past and future, I wrote them all, and read them to never forget who I was.
I remember, by the time I made corporal, I had some stories I would mention too often, like how I had to jump out and take cover when a training grenade flew into my foxhole from behind—its ceramic remnants bruising and contusing the boys two foxholes over, or perhaps the time when I was too busy wiping our tent that I nearly got crushed by a parking tank.
I remember, by the time I made sergeant, I realized there are stories I would never tell.
I remember, each time I moved base, from bootcamp in Nonsan, to the 26 MID in Yangju, to Army HQ in Gyeryong, then to ROKBATT in Lebanon, I realized I was making family, each step of the way—because it was hard and because the pressure weighed in on the brink of unbearable, the bonds I forged, no matter what rank I was, held me tighter and stronger.
I remember, the people who kept in touch, those who wrote to me, those who took the time to talk, those who waited patiently, and those who cared. I learned when times are hard for you, it’s harder for others to stick out for you, and that these are the people whom you will do everything in your power to protect, serve, and love.
On my last Wednesday in Tyre, I met a retired US Army veteran who had fought in Vietnam with the Koreans. He was there to do some contract work, building gyms and playgrounds for kids in the area for a non-profit after having led SWAT teams for 22 years in Minnesota. The gentleman had trouble hiding the unmistakable smile of a proud father under the shade of his cap when he mentioned his son, an army major, who had been on tours to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan. His handshake was firm when we met, and when we parted, he recalled how he knew he was in good hands when he saw Korean flags patched to shoulders storming in back in the 60’s when we fought side-by-side.
He reminded me that men who serve the country as conscripts are no less courageous than those who serve out of volition. Sometimes, it takes more—to start out in dread, in desperation, in denial, in self-pity, and to rise from it, to learn to bear, to adapt, to care, to fight, to shed hubris, to follow without question, to lead with the weight of others on your shoulders, to enjoy, and to love.
There is no book, because there need not be one. How I have and have not changed, who I have become, what I have come to learn and unlearn, these are the pages that make up who I am, and as I embark on a new chapter of my life, I will carry them as a proud Korean.