In 1996 I arrived in the Republic of South Korea for the first time. I was maybe twenty-five years old. Before then the only place I had been outside of the United States was Mexico, which I’m not sure that ever counts. Korea was a whole new world for me, and I was excited about it. I spent two New Years Eves there.

Just a little history to get us started. The Korean War began in June of 1950 and lasted until July of 1953 when the armistice was signed. So, let me share the definition of an armistice with you.

armistice 1. A temporary cessation of fighting by mutual consent; a truce. 2. A temporary suspension of hostilities by convention or agreement of the parties; a truce. 3. A cessation of arms for a short time, by convention; a temporary suspension of hostilities by agreement; a truce.

As you can see, the Korean war has never ended. Currently, it has been a sixty-eight year ceasefire. In this time, the US Army has constantly had a significant presence in South Korea to deter the North from coming down, not to mention whatever strategic interests it held for those who made decisions, which were of no concern to the average grunt.

Your average infantry soldier knew a few things.

  1. He would be stationed north of Seoul, while most other jobs and services other than those that support him would be in or south of Seoul, where it is a bit nicer.
  2. He couldn’t bring his family to Korea, at least through official channels with support.
  3. He would spend eight to nine months of his twelve months there in the field or patrolling around the DMZ.

As stated above, most tours are one year. Mine was one and a half years due to my date to exit the army. Others have stayed even longer, willingly. One of my NCOs was in his tenth year; he had married a Korean woman and just kept reenlisting to stay there.

I mention most of this so you understand that Korea makes for a long lonely year for many guys, which brings me to my first New Year in Korea. I decided to go out into town with some of the guys to celebrate.

I was stationed at Camp Hovey, with the village at our gate being Gwangam-dong, home to the Teokgeo-ri Midget, a dwarf prostitute where after sleeping with her, the clients would get a T-Shirt saying they had experienced the Teokgeo-ri Midget. A place of high class, as you can tell.

As far as I could tell, every bar within stone’s throw of a military base was filled with drinkie girls; these were usually young women who would give you much attention, shower you with praise, sit on your lap, and generally flirt with you if you would only purchase them a bottle of champaign, which costs fifteen dollars, and is usually filled with Sprite or 7-Up; This makes sense of course since they consume a ton of these a night and seem to stay completely sober. I believe they got a cut of every bottle of high-end sprite sold.

I believe the place I was at on this particular New Years’ Eve was called the Star Club; I’m not a hundred percent sure, though. Either way, it was the usual; whatever pop song was popular five to ten years before was blaring on the bar’s sound system. Most guys gathered at tables with a kettle of Soju or just a beer; Soju is a Korean liquor, and they mix it with some kind of juice or Kool-Aide, either way, it goes down fast and sneaks up on you.

I sat with some guys from my unit observing the scene and was feeling sad for everyone in my surroundings. I watched the young Korean drinkie girls try to sell the bottles of high-end Sprite. Many of these girls, to my understanding, are trying to pay off family debts or were shamed somehow into the profession, going from table to table rubbing eighteen-year-old boys’ thighs. The boys, of course just in shock a woman is paying such attention to them, not knowing much better.

Soon the countdown to the new year begins. Again, all these young men between eighteen and twenty or so, primarily drunk or at least with a strong buzz. They are counting, fondling drinkie girls, high-fiving each other, and pretending they are the bravest of the brave. But I can see within, even feel the incredible loneliness they all feel.

Young boys missing mom, their high school sweetheart, or maybe just their friends back home. They sit in a dimly lit smoke-filled bar on the other side of the world pretending to be men. By no means is that an insult, it’s just the truth. Most of these guys have never left their town or state until the army, now they are fifteen miles from an enemy that has no qualms about destroying them if the opportunity would arise. And the only comfort these kids have are girls who are mostly forced into a situation where they have to abase themselves and the alcohol they drink.

To be honest this was one of the more depressing nights of my life. I hope on future New Years’ people will keep in mind the young boys in shitty places trying to convince themselves they aren’t homesick and a tad nervous about the people living an hour away that want to destroy them.

It’s good to celebrate in the comfort of my home these days with my wife and children. When the ball drops I’ll say a prayer for all the young soldiers drinking Soju by the DMZ.