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Wives and and a few of their family members listen to speakers at a foreign spouses’ monthly meeting at the Camp Casey United Service Organizations building.
Wives and and a few of their family members listen to speakers at a foreign spouses’ monthly meeting at the Camp Casey United Service Organizations building. (Erik Slavin / S&S)

CAMP CASEY, South Korea — The night spots operating outside Camp Casey range from American-style sports bars with polished wood to poorly lit concrete slabs with peeling paint.

Most have non-Korean women working the bars, drinking with soldiers searching for companionship on their unaccompanied tours.

When the country was less prosperous, the girls were mostly South Korean. Now, most are from the Philippines, along with a few Russians and others.

Beyond their ethnicities, their stories and backgrounds differ as much as the soldiers who meet them.

Some have college degrees. Others leave poor farming villages in search of anything better.

Hundreds — maybe more — now are living in Area I as military spouses, Area I officials have said. Some are perfectly happy, while others deal with marital problems ranging from typical newlywed issues to physical or verbal abuse.

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Success story

Filipina Micho Ellet is turning out to be one of the group’s success stories.

She signed a one-year contract with an employment agency, which flew her to South Korea for free and gave her a job working in one of the bars outside Camp Casey’s main gate in Dongducheon. Four months later, she married an Army sergeant.

In an unusual move, her employer let her out of her contract after six months, Ellet says. Since then, she has faced many of the issues many new U.S. military spouses experience.

“At first I’d worry because he would go to the field,” Ellet said. “How is he doing? Is he safe? Did he eat? But I got used to it.”

She is one of 12 spouses who recently took and passed their General Equivalency Diploma exam. Ellet already had attended some college in the Philippines but could not enroll in U.S. college classes without the GED. She said she plans to pursue a degree in business management.

Each of the students took classes five days each week to prepare for the exam “and not a single homework question was ever left undone,” said Sally Hall, USO Area I director and the group’s organizer.

Hall relates well to the group: She is Filipina and a military spouse who worked her way through college.

The group’s focus has evolved since it began meeting in April. At first, much of the monthly meeting time was spent helping spouses who felt lost in the system learn about on-post services. Wives who had questions shyly would pass Hall notes.

Now, it’s a “mini-town hall meeting,” Hall said.

On Wednesday, garrison commander Lt. Col. Terry Hodges asked if the wives were getting the ethnic foods they need. Later, representatives from the inspector general and Army Community Services answered questions.

Stan Perry, head of the USO in South Korea, also made the trip for the first time — and the wives promptly asked him to support a holiday party for the group.

“Where this has gone in a very few short months is incredible and Sally deserves a lot of the credit for the program,” Perry said.

The group has become “a big eye-opener” for Area I’s leadership, he said. While people knew that foreign spouses existed, few knew how many there were or what they might need.

Cultural collision

Many of the problems come from cultural misunderstandings, said Hall, who eventually wants to start holding cultural-awareness classes.

Many Filipinas come from a rigid family structure in which open communication isn’t the norm, she said. When conflict arises, the women are used to bringing in a third person to mediate.

“I’ve had some spouses come up to me and say ‘My husband doesn’t understand, can you help?’” Hall said.

American husbands generally see that as interference, she said. Instead, Hall tells spouses to talk to their husbands; if they still have a problem, she arranges meetings with chaplains or family-advocacy workers.

The language barrier also presents difficulties.

“There are some situations where I’m upset and I really want to tell him but I can’t speak very well,” said a Filipina spouse with two children; she’s seeking help from a chaplain.

Sometimes, that frustration turns violent.

Hall says she has seen cases of physical abuse by husbands, and in one case by a wife.

“A few of the spouses have talked about abuse and we help,” said spouse Juliet Clark at a meeting in August. “They talk to the older spouses for help.”

In some cases, the wives say their husbands have gotten better, Hall said. Hall can help the women go to law enforcement or other services.

Many wives also complained that once they are married, the husbands continue to spend weekends at the same clubs where they met.

Immigration process filled with obstacles for some spouses

Some regulars who have been coming to Camp Casey’s United Service Organizations club meetings for non-American spouses know about the immigration process: They’ll face an uncertain and unusual world when they move to the United States with their husbands.

But at least they’ll make it through the airport.

Others aren’t so lucky and will have an uphill climb.

Meet Marisabel Bradley.

Bradley married a soldier in April after meeting him at the bar where she worked. Her husband moved on to his next assignment in Florida, leaving behind Bradley and their infant daughter, Carmelaa, before they could petition for immigrant visas.

“He was so busy when he did his clearing that we couldn’t get all of the requirements completed,” she said.

Bradley, who is from the Philippines, and her baby cannot legally stay in South Korea without another work permit; nor can she go to the United States.

She obtained a dependent identification card in November, allowing her and her child to access base services.

“I don’t really know what I am going to do,” Bradley said. “For now, I’ll wait.”

On Wednesday, she met Sally Hall, USO Area I director and the group’s organizer, at a base meeting on immigration. Bradley later attended her first spouses’ club meeting.

Hall told her she had few choices.

Bradley’s husband must petition on her behalf for an immigrant visa from the United States. And she needs to return to the Philippines, where the visa paperwork will be sent.

Cases such as Bradley’s are what the spouses’ meetings hope to avoid. Given time, wives can assimilate into the system.

“What we really prepare them for is to adapt to the American way of life,” Hall said. “When they go back to the States, I hope this program gives them more confidence.”

— Erik Slavin

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