SEOUL — Just before 11 p.m. Friday night, the Bald Eagle bar in Itaewon was perfectly packed — crowded enough that a person repeatedly had to ask pardon to squeeze through dozens of bodies and lit cigarettes to get to the bar, but roomy enough that two women could two-step together on the dance floor to the delight of the young men cheering them on.
An hour later, the place was dead. Four customers sat at the bar, and a couple of people played pool.
“We scared them off,” said Sgt. Gregory Cing, a member of the Area II courtesy patrol who spent four hours Friday night walking in and out of bars in Itaewon, a neighborhood near Yongsan Garrison. “You don’t even have to do anything. They know.”
So it goes under U.S. Forces Korea’s curfew, a policy that requires servicemembers, Defense Department workers and private contractors — and their family members — to be on base from midnight to 5 a.m. nightly.
The courtesy patrol is a group of about 30 soldiers that provides ears and eyes that assist U.S. military and Korean National police officers, who have more authority to question U.S. servicemembers who may be violating USFK policies such as the curfew, said Barry Robinson, the Area II deputy director of plans and operations.
Uniformed enlisted soldiers and officers in the courtesy patrol walk popular off-base neighborhoods each night to remind other servicemembers to behave, to stay away from off-limits bars and to follow rules such as the curfew.
The soldiers receive basic training, a radio with which they can communicate with home base and a notebook full of maps and checklists to help them track what they see. They don’t carry weapons and are supposed to refrain from confronting soldiers or USFK workers who might be breaking the rules.
Instead, they let military police officers who patrol the same streets and bars know about any suspicious activity they see.
Cing and his partner, Staff Sgt. Daniel Alston, began their patrol Friday shortly before 9 p.m. By 9:20, they had made a full round of about 20 bars under their watch. Alston had seen two people who looked like servicemembers go into an off-limits bar. He told the MPs, and they went to check.
“If they are, then they’re in trouble,” he said after the MPs left. “If not, it’s a simple mistake. They could be Russian or African. Who knows?”
By 10 p.m., Cing and Alston noticed that the Bald Eagle, the King Club and King’s Bar were the three most crowded places. They keep making rounds, but hang out in those spots for 10 to 15 minutes at a time to get a better sense of the crowd and the atmosphere, Alston said.
As their watches ticked closer to midnight, they watched the crowds begin to thin.
USFK officials say the curfew policy is vital to keeping the more than 32,000 troops and 5,000 workers throughout the peninsula safe and ready to fight. The policy has prompted complaints, however, from some civilians who are outraged that uniformed officers are interfering with life after work.
Regardless of the policy’s unpopularity, people in the bars began disappearing just before midnight. It’s unclear, of course, where they were headed next.
Area II officials have an agreement with Itaewon leaders to allow for both the courtesy and military police patrols. But other neighborhoods in Seoul don’t allow the scrutiny. Col. Timothy McNulty, Area II commander, has said he is working to establish similar relationships in other parts of South Korea’s capital city.
It’s hard for the patrols to tell, just by looking, who might be a USFK worker, family member or even, sometimes, soldier.
Last Sunday was Alston’s first night on patrol, and he said he called the military and KNP crew into a couple of bars to question some people who were out after midnight. It turns out the patrons weren’t Americans, he said.
A few minutes after midnight on Saturday morning, Alston and Cing stopped in the King Club, which still had dozens of people drinking and dancing. The pair walked through the bar, nodded approval, and headed back to Yongsan.