Republic of Korea soldiers stand before a memorial in the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom to honor Jang M. K. Jang, who was killed Nov. 23, 1984.

Republic of Korea soldiers stand before a memorial in the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom to honor Jang M. K. Jang, who was killed Nov. 23, 1984. (Teri Weaver / S&S)

PANMUNJOM — Sgt. 1st Class Gary Ross put off retirement and waited months for a special assignment that likely will be his last: the 19th Theater Support Command in Taegu.

Ross wanted to return to South Korea for another chance to see the Demilitarized Zone and visit the compound he helped defend 20 years ago when a Soviet defector ran south and gunfire erupted.

“I wanted to come back here,” Ross said. “I wasn’t going to miss it.”

Ross and more than a hundred other guests gathered Tuesday to mark the 20th anniversary of that 21-minute gunfight and to remember the United Nations Command soldier who died that day, Republic of Korea Army Cpl. Jang M.K.

Another UNC soldier was wounded. Three North Korean soldiers died in the fight; five others were wounded. The defector, Vasily Matusak, lived.

Tuesday also marked the first time Ross has returned to the DMZ since his tour in the early ’80s, when he was a private. He brought his United Nations Command yearbook from his service in the DMZ and he and Shin Hyung-joo, a Korean Augmentee to the U.S. Army (KATUSA) who served with Ross, laughed at their old military portraits.

Ross also brought his snapshots from the day of the firefight. The two men used the faded photos to remember that day’s action. They pointed from pock-marked asphalt and benches in the snapshots to the two new welcome buildings that stand in the Joint Security Area today.

The benches still are there.

“That’s where they came from,” Ross said, pointing to a bench beside a driveway and referring to the North Korean soldiers.

Nov. 23, 1984, was a Sunday, a day when no tours were scheduled for the south side, Shin remembered. Both men were assigned to the quick reaction force, the group on call to respond to any trouble in the JSA, a place where both sides meet, conduct tours and come within a few feet of each other every day.

Shin and Ross were just about to eat lunch.

Instead, they found themselves responding to gunfire in the JSA after Matusak ran from his North Korean tour group and crossed the military demarcation line. About 20 North Korean soldiers followed and began shooting at the defector, according to the United Nations Command.

“It was 30 minutes,” Ross said. “Seemed like forever.”

The official version was clocked at 21 minutes, said Lt. Col. Paul Snyder, commander of the United Nations Command security battalion at the JSA. He participated in Tuesday’s ceremony and talked to some Korean soldiers before Jang’s family arrived.

“When you are supporting the north position, you have got to be prepared,” Snyder told the soldiers. Of Jang, he said, “We do his memory proud by the way that we serve every day. I have all the confidence in you — that you will serve your duties just as bravely as he did. That’s why we’re in front of them all,” he said, echoing the motto of soldiers who serve along the two-and-a-half-mile border between North and South Korea.

Snyder and Lt. Col. Shim Dong-hyun, deputy commander at the JSA, and two other officials placed wreaths at a memorial in honor of Jang.

Jang’s family comes to the ceremony every year. They cried during the speeches, while wreathes were placed and when taps was played. Jang’s father, Jang Dae-yun, answered a few questions afterward with the help of a translator.

“We would like the Korean people to live peacefully and truthfully,” he said.

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