SEOUL — Storming buildings during a mock assault, swapping items in Meals, Ready to Eat, and sleeping in unheated tents in the dead of winter may all be part of a U.S. soldier’s normal life during an exercise.
But rocking out at a pop concert, or having television cameras record your every move? Not so much.
A handful of 2nd Infantry Division soldiers recently became mini-celebrities in South Korea after appearing on “Real Men,” a popular reality television show about the Korean military. Each episode features Korean celebrities — singers, actors, comedians and TV personalities — experiencing some aspect of military life while being embedded with the South Korean armed forces.
The show has catapulted some of the American soldiers to their 15 minutes of foreign fame, at least when they leave Camp Casey, where all are stationed.
“People will ask me about it and want to take pictures with me; everyone from little kids to grown men and women,” said Staff Sgt. Jesse Kennedy, 27, one of three soldiers who was featured prominently in the episode. “Before, nobody knew who I was, and now everybody knows who I am.”
Nearly three dozen 2ID soldiers appeared on the episode, which was taped in January and aired several times last month. The soldiers, all with the 2nd Battalion, 9th Infantry (Mechanized), 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, lived and trained alongside their South Korean counterparts at a 17th Infantry Division base for two days, with the experience culminating in a raid on a mock village. The exercise was scheduled before the filming proposal was submitted, 2ID said.
The 90-minute episode included often-mundane interactions between the men. When soldiers from the two countries first meet, they compare ranks, and the Americans answer questions about their ages, favorite Korean foods, and show off their 2ID Indianhead patch.
The show is heavy on the laugh track and corny music, and is as much a comedy as a reality show. One scene pokes fun at a Korean soldier who scrunches his eyes shut while riding in a wind-rocked Black Hawk, declaring that he will never fly in a helicopter again.
In another scene, South Korean soldier-celebrity Sohn Jin-young, a runner-up in a Korean singing competition similar to “American Idol,” tells the 2ID soldiers, in English, “I am locker” — presumably meaning to explain that he is a rock musician — before pulling out his guitar and singing “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.”
Munhwa Broadcasting Corp., the South Korean network that produced the show, declined to speak with Stars and Stripes.
A proposal submitted by the network to the U.S. military’s Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in Los Angeles, which coordinates military involvement with the entertainment industry, described the show’s purpose: “Through Korea’s top celebrities’ first-hand army experience, the show portrays not only the rigorous training exercises that soldiers go through, but also the fun that they have despite the tough training. Furthermore through these portrayals, the show reveals the comradeship in the army and emphasizes the essential role that the military plays for the security of the nation.”
A production agreement with the Department of Defense allowed 2ID to participate in the program.
“With the exception of any content considered operationally sensitive, the production company received a general release to use the footage they filmed,” 2ID officials said.
The soldiers were not paid to appear in the show.
“Real Men,” which began airing in April 2013, has resonated with the public in South Korea, where all able-bodied males are required to complete two years of military service. Most serve during their late teens or early 20s, sometimes interrupting their college careers to do so.
Previous episodes have included training in martial arts, scaling buildings, hostage rescue, tank maneuvering and meal preparation. The show featuring the 2ID troops also reflects country’s interest in both American culture and the U.S. military, which is often perceived as being inaccessible behind the walls of the many installations across the country, sometimes in the middle of major cities, including Seoul.
Many South Koreans have little one-on-one interaction with the 28,500 U.S. troops regularly stationed in the country.
In this episode, the U.S. troops not only ate in the Korean base cafeteria, but they also conducted a joint air assault, flying in on Black Hawks and clearing two buildings of a fake bomb.
“From the U.S. side, we were treating this as a training event, and if there were cameras there, so be it,” said platoon leader 2nd Lt. Nicholas Kardong, 23.
During training, the 2ID soldiers coached their South Korean counterparts on U.S. methods for conducting raids, such as approaching and clearing rooms.
“I was surprised at how seriously they took the training,” Kardong said. After the air assault mission, the soldiers watched a presentation that showed key moments of the mission, including when participants were “killed” and removed from the game.
“They took their removal very seriously,” he said. “They were clearly disappointed.”
At the start of the two-day filming process, camera crews selected a handful of soldiers who would be featured in the program, basing their decision on who was most outgoing and animated.
“At night it would kind of get annoying, because you just wanted to go to sleep and they kept wanting to film, but other than that, it was just another exercise,” said Pfc. Brandon Fleck, 20, who, along with Kennedy and Pfc. Joshua Lovelace, were spotlighted in the program.
He said he was surprised by the attention the soldiers have received since the show aired.
“I didn’t expect it to be that big,” he said. “I thought it was a little tiny show they were doing it for.”
Not so much. Six Korean celebrities — five of whom have completed their military service — took part in the filming.
“All the Koreans got nervous around them, but we didn’t know who they were so I didn’t get nervous at all,” said Lovelace, 22.
In one scene, Kennedy got a round of applause when he arrived at the group’s tent with a box of soft drinks and a plastic grocery bag filled with snacks.
“What is this?” a puzzled Korean soldier asked as he unrolled one of the offerings — a fruit roll-up that appeared to be several feet long. Two soldiers were shown nibbling opposite ends of the same snack before the screen flashed to an image of a man and woman eating a strand of spaghetti, Lady and the Tramp-style. Another soldier looped a length of his fruit roll-up around his neck.
The South Korean version of MREs, which included fried rice, kimchi and almond cake, got positive reviews from the Americans.
“It was a little better than ours,” Kennedy said. “After a while, you just get tired of eating the same things over and over again, you know.”
Stars and Stripes’ Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.