|26 Nov 2021|
|Written by Fabiana Papastefani|
|World Magazine Fall 2021 Edition- Rebirth, Reinvent, Reroute|
Lost Twenty Months - That is how a friend of mine from the boot camp described his military service. For twenty months, all able-bodied Korean men are obligated to serve in the military, and unarguably, it is our duty. Yet, we are also making a big sacrifice, temporarily forsaking our freedom and youth in the name of our country. I had no high hopes as I enlisted, knowing that the military is rather a backwater institution, and my goal was to leave the military safe and sound.
Overnight, we were stripped of our civilian status, and we became soldiers. However, twenty-some years of life cannot go away in a matter of days. For the first few months, I dreamed of my civilian days - of friends, family, and home - every night, but those memories slowly sank into oblivion. Before I realized it, my dreams took place within the military, and then my nights became completely dreamless. Now, when I look back, the past twenty years of my life feel like a transitory dream. So I found myself bobbing in the middle of the sea, in service of the Republic of Korea Navy. Permanently anchored and never setting sail nor entering any harbors, it is a lonely little place, isolated from the rest of the world. It is not easy living in our base which, albeit having been designed for human habitation, is essentially just a huge chunk of metal painted gray floating on the sea. Its ladders are steep to climb, and we crews have to put up with the vibrations from generators and motors that cause reverberations throughout our base 24/7.
With leaves prohibited due to the rising number of cases of COVID-19 in Korea, I spent the entirety of last winter stuck in the base, and it was only last February that I was able to go home, thanks to the special order issued by the Minister of National Defense to let all soldiers who enlisted prior to Chuseok of 2020 take their first leave. I was grinning from ear to ear as I prepared to go ashore, or so did my juniors tell me teasingly. I will never forget that day on August 31st, 2020 when my life was shaken to its core, when I stopped being a civilian and became a soldier. I will never forget the tears of joy that fell when my call successfully connected with my mom for the first time in the boot camp, and I will fondly remember the times spent together with my buddies undergoing grueling drills in Jinhae, the starting point of the Korean Navy and the birthplace of its sailors.
Oftentimes in spring, thick sea fogs seeped in and blanketed the area for days on no end. Radars swept over our surroundings and showed us the targets, but the gray fog absorbed all light and hid everything away from our sight. We were as blind as bats, and I often felt down as I breathed in the extra saline air, feeling as if I were suspended in time and was going nowhere. But then, at the end, the sea fogs always dissipated to reveal the sunny blue skies and the sparkling blue waters, and that was when I realized that I can find joy in simple things in life.
When I go ashore on leaves, it takes time for my sea legs to go away, and I would wobble at first, but that is just proof that I have returned of the good earth. Sure, the seagulls like to leave their droppings on our decks, but they keep me company while I stand watch. By serving in the military, I am repaying the debt that I owe my father, my grandfather, and countless others before me who gave up their youth and their lives to protect our nation. If my service helps people who I love to sleep safe and sound every night, I think it is twenty months quite well-spent.
In the navy, we have the tradition of fifteen minutes before and five minutes before. At the "fifteen minutes before" announcement, we start preparing, and we must be ready for action at the "five minutes before" call. In about a year's time, my military service will have come to an end, and I will leave for the United States to continue my studies. As much as I am eagerly anticipating this new chapter of my life, it will also be the toughest challenge that I will face. After all, the struggles of living abroad as a foreigner tends to be proportional to the distance away from your home and how foreign you look.
However, we are captains of our own lives, and we must be the ones who take the helm and determine course. By keeping in touch with my family, friends, and buddies from the military, I try to overcome the physical distance that separates us and strengthen the bonds between us. Sweating from workouts is not exactly pleasant in summer humidity, but the satisfaction that it brings me afterwards makes it worth it. Finding time to study so that I can prepare myself for university can be difficult and tiring in busy weeks, but if I survived the DP and the boot camp, what can be out there that I cannot do? The details of my new journey are unclear, and the best I can do is to start preparing for it right now, so that when the time for me to embark on a new journey comes, I will be ready - as ready as I have been at five minutes before setting sail.
Read the whole World Magazine Fall 2021 Edition here:
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