With Army Troops Stationed Overseas

Except for maps, all documents and photos are my own, from my own military service 

(Itaewon, South Korea -- 1996)
A mile or so outside of Yongsan U.S. Army Garrison in central Seoul, past the tourist shops and street vendors selling Bulls, Raiders, et al., apparel, past the Burger King and the newly opened Orange Julius and down a series of narrow roadways packed with American soldiers who are falling in and out of scores of ramshackle clubs (Cadillac Bar, Love Cupid, Texas Club, Boston Club, the King Club, the Palladium, the Grand Ole' Opry) is one of the 180 GI camp-towns that exist outside of every significantly sized military base in South Korea. Or, in the clever catchy jargon of the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed here to help keep the peace -- Downrange.

On any given night in Itaewon, women in prostitution costume hang out club doors soliciting GIs; one part come on, one part contempt. An old Korean woman, hands clasped behind her back, spends the night strolling up and down Hooker Hill, approaching young GIs in their downy sports jackets asking, "Lady?" as the GI, after questioning "How much?" and "How old?" follows her up the hill and down an alley. Later in the barracks the soldiers imitate mockingly, "Suckee, Suckee, fuck, I do everything, I go home with you," clinging to the full metal jacket fantasy that they're still occupying forces in the hooch village.

A drunk troop is screaming at his even drunker buddy who is up against the wall occasionally vomiting "Yo, let's go, these are American girls, not slant eyes. American girls!" A black soldier is dragged by military police out of a packed bar into a packed street screaming "Why me? Why me? What about him?" then breaking loose from the MPs who are asking for his ID card and unit commander and answering his own question bitterly, "Because I'm a nigger."

In the club eight drunk GIs are huddled together, jumping on top of one another on the dance floor while next to them Korean women dance with each other pretending oblivion. A sergeant holds up his beer mug and says with made-for-tv despair, "This got me here, this is keeping me here."

A Korean woman outside a hostess club is yelling at a young soldier, "Get out, get out of here." The GI has his foot in the door, responding periodically with "bitch," "asshole." When he finally storms away she hisses after him, "Go home, your mommy will feed you."

A GI is in the middle of the street with his buddies, pummeling another GI and screaming, "I'm your worst nightmare," until MPs arrive.

A black soldier who's a member of NFL (Niggers for Life) - - a group complete with NFL baseball caps (banned by the Army command) and a member nicknamed O-Dog ("O-Dog don't give a fuck...O-Dog's Korea's worst nightmare") who's looking for payback over last nights brawl - - is outside a club telling the story of how a short while ago some of NFL encountered a group of white soldiers sitting on the curb. The white soldiers made a mock plea for money ("Help the poor"). Words were exchanged. One white soldier used the word "boy." A fight ensued and NFL, "Grabbed that white boy by the throat and BAM BAM." He demonstrates how the white soldier, dazed and wobbling, crumpled to the ground, as NFL tae kwon doed him in the face to finish him off. He told parts of the story over and over, occasionally interrupting himself with the exuberant, self-conscious pop psychology riff: "I had my sex tonight."



Recruited and Enlisted

Since the advent of the all-volunteer military in 1973, the enlisted ranks have for the most part been a place for young people with limited prospects; those looking to escape bad neighborhoods, bad families, bad job markets.

A 1993 survey of new recruits found that they come from homes where 78.4% of fathers and 84.5% of mothers didn't have college degrees. They come from the ranks of the unemployed, working in dead end jobs as cashiers, in factories, at fast food franchises. A 1994 RAND study on Army recruiting trends listed the youth unemployment rate, which has risen almost 27 percent since 1989, as by far the most significant factor affecting the army's ability to attract high quality recruits.

The Department of Defense spends $207 million a year on advertising to reach this market and to pitch life in the military as an amalgam of vocational school, outward bound and character building camp replete with benefits. A way out and up.

But for many of the 176,000 new troops the US military recruits each year, the promise of employment opportunities, education and a better life often aren't realized.

According to a recent Government Accounting Office report, one out of every three recruits doesn't even complete the first term of enlistment. The base pay for a private is $199 a week before taxes and according to a Department of Defense Quality of Life report, in a recent year 11,000 military families overseas were eligible for food stamps.

Military recruiting literature states that offering money for college is the "...single most important product that they [recruiters] have to entice people into the military these days." And in fact, approximately 95% of the Army's new recruits sign up for the Montgomery GI Bill, where you contribute a nonrefundable $1200 into the program and (if you meet a number of conditions and qualify for certain bonuses) can earn up to $30,000 for college. But a significant number of these men and women are paying into a program they might never use.

Though the military spins the numbers a variety of ways, the bottom line, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, is that 2.03 million service members have contributed into the program since it began in 1985, and to date only about 436,000 have actually used the benefits. Of those soldiers who did use it when they left the service, their average payment has amounted to about $7,000 dollars, $1200 of which was their own money. A substantially lower sum than the "$30,000 for college" that the military uses in its advertising.

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