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CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea — Large U.S. bases in Area I, such as Camp Red Cloud, Camp Stanley and Camp Casey, will not close in the short term, predict U.S. veterans living in Warrior Country.

Under agreements reached in the past two years, 2nd Infantry Division camps north of Seoul are to consolidate and move further south. Last month, U.S. officials proposed removing 12,500 of the 38,000 U.S. troops on the peninsula.

However, the old soldiers, who gather most afternoons at Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 10215, also known as the Uijongbu Veterans Club, do not think that nearby Camp Red Cloud or other large bases in Area I will close any time soon.

Retired Air Force Tech. Sgt. Tony Marino, a regular Veterans Club patron, said young soldiers who drop into the club often tell him they think CRC will close soon but “We say CRC is going to be here a long time.”

Many smaller camps in Area I should close, said Marino, who volunteers at the CRC American Red Cross.

“The big ones like CRC and Casey and Stanley won’t close. There is too much strategic importance in the area,” he said.

The veterans have plenty of useful advice for soldiers who stop in to talk at the club, he said.

“I tell them: ‘Don’t expect too much different (in South Korea) than what we have in the States. By the same token, there is a lot different than what we have in the States,’ ” said Marino, who has lived in Uijongbu for more than 30 years.

Another piece of advice he gives youngsters is to find a South Korean girlfriend instead of getting into a relationship with a “drinky girl” from a nightclub.

“Some of them fall in love” with a bar girl “a week after they get here and a week later they are seeing their first sergeant saying they want to get married,” he said.

Marino met his South Korean wife while serving in Area I in the 1960s. The pair settled in Uijongbu, his wife’s hometown, in the 1970s.

Back then, the valley where the city is built was “one big rice paddy,” Marino recalled. Today, Uijongbu is a sprawling urban center filled with multistory apartment blocks, freeways, railroads, shops and factories.

After three decades in South Korea, Marino, like many veterans living in Area I, still cannot speak Korean.

“I know a lot of words, I just can’t put them into sentences. My wife speaks Korean with her Korean friends, and when she is with me, she speaks English,” he said.

However, Marino has adapted to South Korean food.

“I loved Korean food to begin with but now I find myself favoring Korean food more than Western meals,” he said.

Marino’s story is similar to those of the other Veterans Club regulars, who all have South Korean wives.

The Veterans Club has about 200 members but only about a half-dozen are regulars, he said.

The club, which hosts monthly VFW meetings, is a place where old soldiers can relax, drink, watch television or play cards.

“It is a place for fraternity. We enjoy the relaxed atmosphere, and there are no women or hookers,” Marino said.

Veterans Club owner Jimmy Chu said he chases away any prostitutes who try to enter the club.

“I’m not greedy. I run a clean bar. There are no hookers and no hustle here. It is just a club for veterans,” said the South Korean, who spends hours reminiscing with his customers.

Chu, whose family was killed by communists during the Korean War, said he’s been an ardent supporter of the United States since GIs who found him hiding under a bridge in 1950 took him in.

“I grow up with Americans. I like American people. If they pull out of here, in my opinion, North Korea would attack. The North Koreans and Chinese would easily take Japan and after that they might go after America,” he said.

When Gen. Douglas MacArthur landed at Inchon, North Koreans and Chinese were all over Korea, he said.

“They changed into civilian clothes and started killing Americans. The war went for three years. I saw so many people get killed with my own eyes. There were bodies all over the place and no houses left in Uijongbu,” Chu recalled.

Back then Red Cloud was a collection of tents without a boundary fence. Chu became a “houseboy” for the soldiers, shining their shoes until the Republic of Korea Army drafted him in 1966.

In his wallet Chu keeps a pair of $5 bills that soldiers gave him as parting gifts when they left in 1953.

“Back then $5 would buy a night with a woman and as much alcohol as you could drink and you would still have change,” he said.

Chu also carries a cigarette lighter bearing a picture of MacArthur that was given to him by a colonel in 1955. The colonel said he got the lighter from MacArthur himself, Chu said.

When he got out of the army in 1968, he started working for VFW clubs, taking over the Uijongbu club 11 years ago.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.
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