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Spc. Louis Davis, 32, lands a kick during the ROK-U.S. Friendship Tae Kwon Do competition. Davis placed first in the light welter-weight category. U.S. soldiers snagged another first place plus two third-places in the tournament.
Spc. Louis Davis, 32, lands a kick during the ROK-U.S. Friendship Tae Kwon Do competition. Davis placed first in the light welter-weight category. U.S. soldiers snagged another first place plus two third-places in the tournament. (Jeremy Kirk / S&S)
Spc. Louis Davis, 32, lands a kick during the ROK-U.S. Friendship Tae Kwon Do competition. Davis placed first in the light welter-weight category. U.S. soldiers snagged another first place plus two third-places in the tournament.
Spc. Louis Davis, 32, lands a kick during the ROK-U.S. Friendship Tae Kwon Do competition. Davis placed first in the light welter-weight category. U.S. soldiers snagged another first place plus two third-places in the tournament. (Jeremy Kirk / S&S)
Spc. Louis Davis rests in between a second-round match at the ROK-U.S. Friendship Tae Kwon Do competition.
Spc. Louis Davis rests in between a second-round match at the ROK-U.S. Friendship Tae Kwon Do competition. (Jeremy Kirk / S&S)

POCHON, South Korea — Drops of deep-red blood seeped through the tape on Sgt. Johnny Birch’s right hand Friday.

Just moments before, the 22-year-old, a member of the 2nd Infantry Division’s tae kwon do team, had let out a blood-curling cry of “Second to None” — the division’s motto — before smashing through 18 of 30 brick-hard, red plastic pallets.

Birch, along with other South Korean army soldiers, was demonstrating the power of tae kwon do, one fist at a time. The plastic pallets are perforated but extremely hard, said Birch.

Before striking them, Birch huffed and hissed, concentrating on driving his fist straight through to the floor.

“It’s gonna hurt, so you just get that thought out of your head,” said Birch.

The demonstration was a break from the ROK-U.S. Friendship Tae Kwon Do competition, an intense fighting championship at the South Korean army’s 6th Corps headquarters that pitted 30 South Korean and six U.S. soldiers against each other. U.S. soldiers performed remarkably well in the country that gave birth to the sport, snatching two first place and two third place spots in different weight classes.

It was their best showing in three matches since September, and the U.S. contingent received the invitational flag, proudly waving it before Maj. Gen. John Wood, the division commander.

The event also reinforced the strong bond between U.S. and South Korean soldiers. In addition to shouting their own anthems, the South Koreans waved U.S. flags, beat drums and chanted U.S. soldiers’ names during the matches.

The two U.S. soldiers who placed first are hardly strangers to the sport. Spc. Louis Davis, 32, has been doing tae kwon do since he was 14, and captured the top spot in the light welterweight category.

He started studying the sport in Minneapolis. Both his father and stepfather were deep into martial arts, Davis said.

Davis was a four-year member of the All-Army tae kwon do team. By trade, he’s a light-wheel vehicle mechanic with the 82nd Engineer Company at Camp Edwards, but his tae kwon do skills are so strong — he’s a second-degree black belt — he can do it full time with the division’s team.

“I like playing against fast people,” Davis said after claiming his semifinal victory. “It keeps me on my toes.”

On his body armor, Davis wrote a passage from the Bible: “Put on the whole armor of God so when the day of evil comes you may be able to stand your ground.”

It got him through Friday. Davis enthusiastically hugged Staff Sgt. Kevin Williams, a cool-headed kicker who finished first in the middle heavyweight category, after the two received medals.

The unflappable Williams twice struck his opponent in the head with his foot and fired direct kicks to his chest, knocking him down at least twice in the final round. Afterward, Williams said simply: “I wasn’t going to lose.”

Williams was on the All-Army team for seven years. Tall, stolid and confident, Williams held his comments and power in reserve, waiting for the right moment.

“He was OK,” Williams said of his opponent. “He was a pretty good fighter.”

Tae kwon do helps U.S. soldiers develop physical agility, Wood said. Master Kim Mun-ok, who runs the division’s program, said 8,000 soldiers have earned a color belt rank.

“Our team is really strong this year,” Kim said.

Staff Sgt. David Ruiz, the noncommissioned officer in charge of 2ID’s team, said seeing the U.S. flag waved by South Korean soldiers made him feel at home.

“I was surprised when I saw them,” Ruiz said. “They cheered for us. [U.S. soldiers] cheered for them. It’s a really nice feeling. It unites us as soldiers.”

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