Korean War essay winner: In a father's footsteps
Published: July 27, 2012
To mark the 59th anniversary of the armistice that halted the Korean War, the Korea Health Industry Development Institute, a South Korean government agency, recently partnered with the Korean War Veterans Association to hold an essay contest for American veterans of the conflict and their relatives.
On Friday evening, two winners — former Marine Corps 1st Lt. Joseph C. Tirrell and Karen L. Healy, daughter of former Army Master Sgt. Jason Walker Bowling — will be recognized at a banquet in Arlington, Va. In September, they and their guest will travel to South Korea to tour the nation that has emerged from that war.
Below is Healy’s essay on a daughter tracing her father’s footsteps. Tirrell’s essay on a nation rebuilding itself can be found here.
Karen L. Healy, daughter of former Army Master Sgt. Jason Walker Bowling:
Dad used to talk to us about the Army ... his Army. Over a crowded dinner table, during long vacation drives to Tennessee or Kentucky, sometimes even when he just wanted to make a point about how easy life was for my generation, he would talk about his Army.
More specifically, he would talk about the time he spent in Korea. He would pepper his conversation with funny Korean words and while we never understood the language, we came to understand the meaning of them, based on when — and how vociferously — Dad would use them!
We liked to listen as his voice would mellow, even as he told funny stories about the landscape — this hill and that hill, or the way women would bury pots of kimchee in the ground to let the spicy mixture ferment, or the pranks he and his mates would pull during the rare R&R. When he talked about his Army buddies, his voice would soften, and my tough Dad would get this look in his eye that I could never quite understand.
Many years and a lifetime past all those stories over the dinner table, I found myself on my second (I don’t know, maybe it was the third?) business trip to Korea. It was in May of 2008, and once we received our itinerary, I realized that the journey from Seoul to Daegu to Pusan would literally be in my father’s footsteps. That route — so long ago just a series of villages and hills — would be the path my colleagues and I would take as we visited a series of automotive plants and two of our tech centers. It was the same path my dad travelled during his deployment in Korea.
I kept a journal during the entire trip. I took pictures and tried to capture the landscape that Dad might have seen all those years ago. We drove from Seoul to Daegu (or Taegu, as it was known during Dad’s time) in the early morning, with the sun coming up over the mountains. We had the advantage of an air-conditioned coach, with full service provided by a capable staff and the catering department of our hotel no less! I felt guilty, thinking about Dad and his stories about sea rations, no sleep, and day after day of soggy mud and soaking rain.
We drove along the Han River as we passed through Seoul that morning. The River was on my left, the 1988 Olympic venues on my right, and the signs of progress and change and growth were everywhere around me. Dad recalls only rudimentary buildings and rough huts, yet now there are skyscrapers emblazoned with the Korean and American names of every bank, retail outlet, business and service imaginable. Every now and then, there is a left-over building of what looks like a family business, but updated for assuring that it participates in the booming economy.
I recall the voices of my colleagues sitting behind me, their familiar voices rising and falling over the din of the bus wheels as we bounced along the highway cut into the hills of such a strange and beautiful country known as “The Land of the Morning Calm.” The hills were everywhere – mountains I guess, except they were up so close to the road and so covered with vegetation that they seemed too familiar to be called mountains.
While we flew along in our journey to Daegu, I recalled that Dad walked most of the country. At least, that’s what he would tell us ... but then again, he would also have us believe that he walked nine miles to school each day — uphill both ways!
As I looked over the landscape, I began to understand that he must have walked uphill a lot because the country is one big range of hills, mountains, craggy valleys and steppes. I don’t know if they have names — Dad says they identified them by numbers. I thought the rice paddies were beautiful and almost romantic; I doubt he saw them that way when the water and the muck came up over his boots. Outside of Seoul, up in the hills, there were gorgeous sweeps of azaleas and cherry trees planted so perfectly that it was hard to tell if it was a nursery or the organized stateliness of someone’s garden.
As we handled emails and voicemails and meetings over our phone lines, I was struck at how easy it is for us to communicate these days. And I thought about Dad during the War — an 18-year-old soldier who lied about his age to join his Army. At that point in time, I’m not sure Granny and Grandpa even had a telephone ... and when they did, it was a shared party line for about as long as I can remember!
Given the terrain over which our bus was bouncing, I thought about how amazing it must have been that the government could mobilize troops, feed them, house them and make sense out of their plans, given that the only means of communication would have been by Army radio (provided someone was there to operate it!), or by messenger or by wire. And I also thought about what it must be like to be so young, so far from anything familiar, and have no means by which to say “I love you” every day to people so far away.
The week-long trip went faster than I could have imagined, with thoughts of Dad to keep me company the entire time. We were greeted at one stop by lovely women in beautifully embroidered traditional hangbok dresses as they presented us with huge bouquets of flowers; we had dinner at the sanctuary called Samchunggak – originally built by the Red Cross for a meeting between North and South Korea and later used by dignitaries for official meetings; we walked the stone paths of a garden now silent except for the ghosts of history; we drove back to our hotel along a street lined with huge lanterns to celebrate Buddha’s birth; and ended our journey eventually at the bustling port of Pusan. In Dad’s time, it was not much more than a fishing village. Today, it is a modern commercial city, with skyscraper after skyscraper lining the shores.
I have travelled the world, but that trip was the singular one which caused me to appreciate the extent to which my parents’ generation has done good things for other parts of the world, and how much of my own character stems from their stories of hardship and struggle. Certainly for Dad, who was so very young during his time in Korea, I suspect a great deal of his own character was formed in those mountains and rice paddies. He was barely out of his teens when he was named a master sergeant; I cannot imagine the burden of responsibility he shouldered.
I chronicled the trip in a diary and photo book and gave it to him that Christmas. He had that strange look in his eyes again, as if memories were coming right off the pages at him. We have shared memories in those photos ... he and I.
Two years ago, my younger sister and I took Dad and his wife to Washington, D.C. I had to be there on business; Dad wanted to see the Korean Memorial. After our arrival, we settled into our hotel two blocks from the Capitol and had a leisurely lunch in the sunshine. As we grabbed a cab to head toward all of the memorials, I thought Dad seemed excited, but a bit nervous. I think he didn’t know what to expect.
At the Memorial, we hung back and let him absorb the entire thing at his own pace. It was a hazy and still afternoon, with not many visitors. Dad walked gingerly over the long marble slabs — the artist’s rendering of the paths in a rice paddy. Dad looked into the face of nearly every one of the larger-than-life soldiers. I think he saw people he knew in each of their faces. Some he would study for a long time, but then he’d bite his lip and turn to the next. He walked the entire line with the soldiers, I think on patrol in some far off field in his own mind. We sat for a bit around the reflecting pond, not saying much. I think he could have sat there for a long, long time, but eventually he sighed and stood up and said it was time to go.
We walked back along the path next to the soldiers, and Dad glimpsed at one or two of them again and again. I think he was reluctant to leave them there, forever in their rain gear, forever reflected in the long granite wall on their right, forever on patrol.
The following day, I had arranged for lunch at the National Press Club, courtesy of a colleague who had joined Kia Motors the year before. We didn’t tell Dad anything, other than we were going to have a nice meal before we headed out for more sightseeing. Much to his surprise – exactly what we had intended – we were joined by some of the company’s Korean executives.
Once the introductions and pleasantries were over, a gentle man with a soft voice stood and addressed my father. He talked about life in Korea when he was young. He talked about the American soldiers and the conflict to create a free country. He talked about his ability today to work for a great company, now doing business in an even greater country. He told my dad that none of that would have been possible, and that his life would have been entirely different, if the American soldiers had not given his country freedom. And he shook my Dad’s hand and thanked him for his service.
I never understood until that moment the bond between my Dad and Korea. He wasn’t there very long, but he left part of himself there that he’ll never get back. And he brought back a lot of Korea in his heart. He still tells stories on occasion, but I’m sure none of us will ever hear the realities of what he lived through. It’s probably still too painful. But the joy on his face as he shook the hand of the soft-spoken Korean man was the best ending to any of his stories.
I will treasure always my last trip to Korea, because it was “in my father’s footsteps.” I treasure even more having had the chance to see the singular bond between two countries represented in the single handshake between two very proud men. My Dad was one of them.