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A South Korean air force band plays “Auld Lang Syne” at a farewell ceremony for two fellow members on the last day of their military service last week at Osan Air Base, South Korea.

A South Korean air force band plays “Auld Lang Syne” at a farewell ceremony for two fellow members on the last day of their military service last week at Osan Air Base, South Korea. (Franklin Fisher / S&S)

A South Korean air force band plays “Auld Lang Syne” at a farewell ceremony for two fellow members on the last day of their military service last week at Osan Air Base, South Korea.

A South Korean air force band plays “Auld Lang Syne” at a farewell ceremony for two fellow members on the last day of their military service last week at Osan Air Base, South Korea. (Franklin Fisher / S&S)

South Korean air force Staff Sgt. Choi Yu-yong, left, says goodbye to fellow members of an air force band on his final day of military service last week at Osan Air Base, South Kora.

South Korean air force Staff Sgt. Choi Yu-yong, left, says goodbye to fellow members of an air force band on his final day of military service last week at Osan Air Base, South Kora. (Franklin Fisher / S&S)

OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — Shortly before boarding a train back home to Pohang with his girlfriend, Staff Sgt. Choi Yu-yong said his goodbyes while the band sounded forth the farewell strains of “Auld Lang Syne.”

It was the last day of military service with the South Korean air force for the smiling Choi, who had been based here as a French horn player.

With him in the South Korean air force band compound’s courtyard on this overcast Tuesday morning was the painfully shy clarinet player, Staff Sgt. Yi Dong-eun. He, too, was on his last day and would catch a train for Seoul.

For U.S. airmen and others passing by the main gate section of the base, the sounds of a band playing may have been a surprise.

The Republic of Korea air force, or ROKAF, Operations Center’s Support and Service Wing band moved to Osan Air Base last fall, but only went fully operational on March 16. It’s one of five bands in ROKAF.

Had any Americans followed the sound to its source that Tuesday morning, they’d have seen Choi and Yi, both in their early 20s, in the courtyard outside the band’s two-story building taking part in a 30-year-old ROKAF Band tradition: a ceremonial send-off for band members on their final day in the military.

Called chon-yok shin-go, it was a cheerful mix of straight-faced military formalities along with a lot of friendly razzing and cutting up with each of the 28 musicians.

The ROKAF bands adopted the practice 30 years ago as a way of showing appreciation to departing airmen. “We want to give them a good memory by a ceremony like this one,” bandmaster Capt. Jung Cheon-yong explained later.

Things started just after 9 a.m. with Choi and Yi at attention before Jung at the building’s entrance, reporting for duty for the last time.

Then they stood at attention in the open courtyard and, as part of the tradition, faced a sequence of the band’s three or four junior airmen. Each came up to the pair in turn, took their salute, and revealed just what trick he had up his sleeve. Choi and Yi were ordered to their knees, were handed leftover breakfast food and ordered to wolf it down, handed small bottled drinks and told to drink, ordered to sprint to the compound gate and back.

Then came the individual goodbyes, with Choi and Yi going from one fellow bandsman to another for handshakes and brief conversation.

By tradition, the ROKAF Band send-off climaxes when the departing airmen are ready to exit the compound for the last time. For Choi and Yi, that came shortly after 9:30, and as they headed out, the band struck up the rousing official ROKAF song.

As they walked, the bandsmen followed briskly behind them as a single formation, blaring the song, then halting at the gate, where they continued playing as the airmen went on their way.

ROKAF Senior Airman Won Gwan-hee, 20, a trombonist, knows that “one day I’ll have this ceremony as well. I think it’s a very good tradition. … It gives those who are leaving, good memories. Rather than just saying goodbye … it’s very meaningful.”


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