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Ki Tae-cha has served food and drinks to American soldiers in the field for more than 30 years. Her friend, Park Nam Sun, recently passed away during a field exercise after 40 years of similar service.

Ki Tae-cha has served food and drinks to American soldiers in the field for more than 30 years. Her friend, Park Nam Sun, recently passed away during a field exercise after 40 years of similar service. (Seth Robson / S&S)

CAMP CASEY, South Korea — Soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division’s 1-72nd Armored Battalion are mourning the death of their most senior ajumma, who died of a heart attack at Twin Bridges Training Area earlier this month.

Ajumma Park Nam-sun lost consciousness after preparing food for soldiers at Twin Bridges in early December. Medics from 1-72nd performed CPR, reviving her three times before Korean paramedics arrived, but efforts to resuscitate her a fourth time were unsuccessful.

Literally translated, ajumma is Korean for “aunt,” but it’s more commonly used as a catch-all honorific like “ma’am.” For most 2ID soldiers, an ajumma is also any of the numerous local women who serve freshly prepared food and drinks to soldiers in the field.

Ajummas are attached to every company in Area I, including 1-72nd Headquarters and Headquarters Company, where Park was the ajumma for more than 40 years, officials said.

One of Park’s regular clients, Sgt. William Glen of HHC, said he’d enjoyed her products since 1998.

“She kept us going, and her heart was with the soldiers,” he recalled, saying Park shared the hardships of field exercises with the men. “When we go shoot gunnery, we are out there for 30 days and the ajummas suffer the same hardships as we do — the heat and the cold and the bugs.”

Capt. Keith Wilson, also of HHC, remembered Park setting up her tent outside the company’s perimeter where she served fried yaki mandu (egg rolls), noodles and Gatorade.

“When we are in the field, it is either MREs or the hot meal service in the dining facility we bring with us. It is typical Army food, which is not bad, but after a while it is nice to have something different,” Wilson said.

He didn’t know how Park became HHC’s ajumma but recalled that she and her colleagues were “territorial.”

“There are times when we get set up and independent ajummas will come and start trying to peddle goods,” he said. “The company ajumma will send them on their way.”

Sgt. Christopher Olejnik was one of several HHC soldiers who attended Park’s funeral.

He helped carry her coffin from a hospital in Dongduchoen to a bus, where it was stowed in the baggage compartment and taken to her former home and a family business before being buried in a hill plot next to her late husband.

Olejnik said ajummas have amazing stamina in the field, bringing food to isolated locations such as the tops of hills inaccessible to vehicles, and they have an uncanny knack of finding units in concealed positions.

Ki Tae-cha, one of Park’s fellow ajummas, will move from 1-72nd’s Company A, where she has been for 32 years, to take over the HHC position.

Ki said her secret is using quality meat and special spices to make her food taste good.

Her house, near the front gate of Camp Casey in Dongduchoen, is filled with pots and pans, a small gas stove that she uses in the field, a large, well-stocked refrigerator and a smaller refrigerator for kimchi.

Ki said she had seen many soldiers leave South Korea and return years later with higher ranks. She remembers one captain, now a major, particularly fondly.

“He was always helping me carry my heavy things and he yelled at the soldiers: ‘Why don’t you help her? She’s small and skinny. Why are you sitting there?’”

Ki said she loves her job.

“I have no children of my own, but the GIs are like sons to me,” she said. “They call me ‘Mom’ and treat me like a mom.”

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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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