GIs bond with S. Koreans through tree planting
HANAM, South Korea — The real roots of friendship go deep, and you could say the roots of one tree at Camp Colbern tested that relationship with the city of Hanam a couple of years ago.
The small, quiet hillside camp, just outside Seoul’s southeastern border, is home to about 240 soldiers of the 304th Signal Battalion, a unit responsible for setting up tactical communications.
About two dozen soldiers donated their time Friday by joining other South Korean civilians in Hanam at an annual Arbor Day tree planting.
South Koreans are obsessive about their trees, in part because artillery rounds during the Korean War decimated hillsides, necessitating massive planting campaigns to renew the country’s temperate climate forests and green mountainsides.
“It’s fun,” said Pfc. Jonathan Goetzcke, who worked with three other soldiers to create a custom T-shirt for the event that read “Volunteer.”
But there’s one tree in particular cited by Koreans as intolerable. The “hyunsashi namu” — known in English as a poplar — is loathed because its pollen, along with the willow’s, causes allergies. It was one of these trees — located on the grounds of Camp Colbern — that once caused a rift between the U.S. Army and the city, said Cho Jae-hoon, a Hanam city landscaping manager.
The forlorn tree was eventually cut down, an act that improved relations between the base and the city, Cho said. The tone of relations between the Camp Colbern soldiers and civilians of this small city have sometimes centered on trees, and it was no different Friday as civilians happily watched the soldiers don gloves and get dirty.
The city had torn down dying pine trees along a hillside and wanted to replace them with new pines. The floppy, needled saplings — which looked a bit like Charlie Brown’s depressed Christmas tree — were gingerly plunked into pre-dug holes and covered with clumps of thick muck from the mountainside.
Similar scenes played out at other camps Friday. On Camp Red Cloud, Gyeonggi Province Vice Governor Chun Myung-soo and Uijeongbu Mayor Kim Moon-won joined Maj. General John R. Wood, the 2nd Infantry Division commander, in planting a yew tree outside Freeman Hall.
Chun said the two trees planted in 2003 and 2004 by the province and 2nd ID “symbolize hope and cooperation.”
The ceremony marked Chun’s first visit to the 2nd Infantry Division, and as he pointed out, was also Wood’s 54th birthday.
U.S. soldiers have come out for the last five years for the plantings. But in the past, the 304th battalion commander would come out and ceremoniously plant one tree with city officials and volunteers, Cho said. This time, many soldiers participated and “their (planting) skills have improved.”
Lt. Col. Clinton Bigger, battalion commander, said the city shows great hospitality toward the small base and “we always try to look for ways to get involved in the city.” It also helps soldiers mingle with local civilians, improving relations, he said.
And local tax office worker Lee Cheon-hyung said it reminds people that U.S. soldiers are here not only for the defense of his country. “We realize they are here and helping us” in other ways as well, he added.
— Shin Hyung-bun contributed to this report.