An off-duty soldier comes from on post with a friend Friday afternoon at Yongsan Garrison. Soldiers are advised to take a buddy when traveling off post.

An off-duty soldier comes from on post with a friend Friday afternoon at Yongsan Garrison. Soldiers are advised to take a buddy when traveling off post. (Jeremy Kirk / S&S)

TAEGU, South Korea — Just before his troops hit the streets for the weekend, Army 1st Sgt. Stephen Widener gives them their weekly reminders on how to stay safe off-post — especially through use of the “buddy system.”

If you’ll be going off the installation, don’t go alone, he’ll tell them. Instead, go with one or more “battle buddies.”

“That would be probably one of the first things I’d talk about,” said Widener, of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 20th Support Group, at Camp Henry in Taegu.

“Whether it be going to a movie or going shopping or whatever the activity might be that’s being conducted off the installation, you know you’ve got somebody who’s got your back — two sets of eyes.”

The military has long encouraged the buddy system as the best way servicemembers can avoid trouble or survive it. It’s not mandatory in South Korea but very strongly recommended, U.S. military officials said.

“It’s a system we put in place in order to safeguard our soldiers,” said Maj. Holly Pierce, a spokeswoman for the 8th U.S. Army in Seoul.

And the buddy needn’t be a servicemember, Pierce said.

“It could be a family member,” she said. “It’s just to have somebody else with you. … It could be anybody. It could be a Korean national who’s a friend of yours. Just don’t be alone.”

But the buddy system has taken on fresh importance in South Korea recently, where a surge of anti-American sentiment has coincided with attacks on servicemembers.

A U.S. Army officer in civilian clothes was attacked with a knife while walking alone outside Yongsan Garrison in Seoul the night of Dec. 15. He escaped with minor injuries.

On Dec. 18 in Taegu, a U.S. soldier jogging with a partner sustained a cut arm when a group of middle-aged men harassed her while she ran along an off-post jogging trail.

On Dec. 19, in Seoul, two U.S. soldiers in uniform outside the Seoul Station were shoved and spat on by disgruntled South Korean men.

Typically, safety briefings like Widener’s are aimed mainly at the young enlisted servicemembers.

But that doesn’t mean more seasoned personnel — officers and sergeants who may have years in service — are counted out.

Military leaders are aware of standing policies and are often the ones who direct subordinates to give them renewed emphasis at the troop level, said Maj. Andrew Mutter, spokesman for the 19th Theater Support Command in Taegu.

“The chain of command is informed and knows of the policies and they’re the ones that are pushing it down to the first sergeants and to the soldiers,” Mutter said.

But regardless of rank, the military recognizes that there may be instances where lining up a buddy is not immediately workable.

“It’s always good to have a witness or someone else to help you in a situation,” said Army Spc. Michael Martos, 25, a generator repairman with the 19th Theater Support Command at Camp Walker in Taegu.

Martos uses the buddy system if he knows he’ll be off-post for more than a few minutes.

“If I’m going down the street to the corner store to buy a soda or something, I’m not going to bring a buddy with me,” Martos said.

“But if I’m going out for a couple of hours, have something to eat, have a couple of beers, I’m going to have someone with me — and I’ve gone out in groups of four or five,” he said.

Martos thinks trouble was averted a few times because he was with a buddy, he said.

A few months ago, he and a buddy were on a staircase leading to a bar. Ahead were three South Korean men, one of whom addressed a racial remark to Martos.

Martos ignored it; he and his buddy left, avoiding trouble. Had he been alone, he said, “I think there was a high possibility of a confrontation.”

He’s also seen the buddy system benefit his fellow soldiers, especially those who’ve had a beer too many.

“There were a couple of times I carried soldiers that … weren’t going to make it home if we didn’t take them with us,” Martos said.

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