I enrolled at Humboldt State University, but never attended because I realized that my parents couldn’t afford to pay for my tuition, and I wasn’t willing to spend four years amassing a five-figure debt while possibly preparing myself for some career that I subsequently would decide I didn’t like. I decided to cash in on the military’s GI Bill. One day I went into Mom’s beauty shop, sat down in her chair, and told her that I had signed up for a three-year hitch in the US Army. I’m barely five feet tall, which squeaked me through the height requirement, but was two pounds below the 100-pound weight limit, so I had to eat donuts and fried foods to bulk up (I wish I could have that problem again).
Boot camp was Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Goldie Hawn had just made a big hit with Private Benjamin, which resulted in us female enlistees being subjected to a lot of ribbing. Fifty of us women were in our own platoon.
Boot camp was intense. I should have waited until summer to sign up because the winter weather in Missouri continually offended my California-bred opinions about appropriate temperature ranges. I seemed to be sick most of the time. To add more misery, I have size-three feet. My combat boots, which had to be special ordered, didn’t fit well. I developed tendinitis in my Achilles’ tendon from running dozens of miles in those ill-fitting boots.
Whining and griping about conditions is the enlisted soldier’s birthright, but the fact is that boot camp was a time of growth and positive change. For example, I have never been at a loss for words, but quickly mastered the art of keeping my mouth shut when it was necessary for me to do so. I also learned practical lessons about relationships through associating with a number of people with strange personalities and bizarre stories that sometimes left me shaken.
Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood is conducted according to a formal mission statement: “This 10-week, gender integrated training produces values-based, disciplined soldiers, who are trained in basic skills, Warrior Tasks and Battle Drills.” I don’t know if the experience successfully transformed me into the “lean, mean fighting machine” that might be expected from that description, but I do know that by the time I was done, I was able to do an amazing number of pushups. I was actually awarded a Super Jock patch because I was one of the few who passed the Army’s Physical Training Test the first time I took it.
My original goal was to become an MP, but I guess they thought a five-foot female with size-three feet wouldn’t command much respect no matter how big a sidearm she carried in her belt. My second choice was to become an Air Traffic Controller. However, the Army will let you do anything you want as long as it is according to “the needs of the Army.” When they saw my scores on a series of intelligence and aptitude tests, they decided they needed me in Military Intelligence. They asked me an awkward question, “Can you get a Top Secret clearance?” While growing up in Lucerne, I had pressed against some of the boundaries pretty hard and didn’t always “color inside the lines” but, as it turned out, my Top Secret clearance came through without any trouble.
They said that I could become proficient in a language of my choice, so I applied for German, Spanish, or Japanese. I thought it would be great to become bilingual in any of those languages. However, it turned out that the military would only let me learn a language of my choosing as long as I chose the one that was in accord with the “needs of the Army.” In this case, they needed me to learn Korean, which came after 50 or so other languages I would rather have chosen. They assigned me to Monterey’s Defense Language Institute (DLI) and only after I arrived did they share the fact that they would send me back unless I extended my enlistment for a fourth year. Monterey is a cool place and Military Intelligence seemed like a cool gig, so I agreed.
Mastering Korean was the hardest thing I ever did. For eight hours a day, five days a week, we totally immersed ourselves in language acquisition. At the end of 47 weeks of grueling effort, if you put bags over our heads and listened to us speak, you couldn’t have told that we weren’t native born Koreans. The only reason I succeeded was that one day the instructors warned me that I was going to fail, which was the wrong thing to tell me. (Well, it was the right thing probably.) I’ve always had a “Don’t tell me what I can’t do” attitude so eventually graduated with a solid B. There were a lot of dropouts and only a handful of us actually graduated. I married one of them.
I had actually met Mark Seyer at basic training. Fraternizing with the opposite sex was strictly forbidden during boot camp. By a remarkable coincidence, when I got to Advanced Individual Training at Goodfellow AFB in Texas, Mark was a member of my class. We became friends even though we were dating other people. The coincidence factor grew even stranger when Mark was one of only four of us to be sent to DLI. The four of us hung out together until the other two flunked out, which left Mark and me hanging out together. One thing led to another, as will so often happen in those situations. We were married before finishing DLI —and were actually married twice, once before a Pacific Grove Justice of the Peace and a second time at a lovely ceremony in Santa Rosa.
Mark and I graduated from DLI not long after the wedding and were sent to Korea. This was during the Cold War and the world was a scary place. International diplomacy was conducted under a Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) philosophy, which essentially meant that “You better not nuke us or we’ll nuke you back and turn the whole planet into a lifeless cinder.” The only reason the world hasn’t become a lifeless cinder is because, up to this point, no world leader has been insane enough to not comprehend the logic. However, as we all know, North Korea has been experimenting with nuclear weapons. Those guys don’t always behave in a completely rational manner, so who knows if sometime during the next decade, or so, our grand three-billion-year evolutionary experiment might come to an abrupt and absolute halt.
When we first landed in Korea, the Army made us put on our Class A Uniforms and then bussed us to the DMZ, so we could see with our own eyes the threat that North Korea constantly poses for the South and, for that matter, the entire free world. Open warfare in the so-called “Korean Conflict” ended six decades ago, but no peace treaty has ever been signed and, as far as the North Koreans are concerned, the fight isn’t over yet. The North Koreans were blasting high-decibel propaganda messages across the border.
The Korean peninsula is smaller than the State of Arizona, so an invasion from the North could overrun the South in a few hours. We learned that North Korean agents would actually slip into military emplacements by night and hack a GI or two to death. While I was in the country, a North Korean spy blew up 14 South Korean cabinet members in a meeting in Burma. We were part of an ongoing global crisis. Three days after we got on station, the Korean Air Lines Flight 007, traveling from New York to Seoul, strayed into Russian airspace. A Russian interceptor shot it down, killing all 279 passengers including a U.S. Congressman from Georgia named Larry McDonald. Tensions were high on both sides of the curtain; those were dangerous days.
For two years, Mark and I were stationed a two-hour jeep ride south of the DMZ in a place called An Jung Ni. I’m unsure of the spelling because I never before wrote the name in English. Our task was to keep the North Koreans on their side of the DMZ. I was a Signal Intelligence Analyst. I could tell you exactly what I did, but then would have to kill you. (I could never get you all, so I would just end up doing hard time at Leavenworth.)
Mark and I lived in the middle of a rice paddy with four rooms, a stove, a refriger- ator, and no telephone service or oven, so no pies. We bought our food and supplies at the commissary, which was an hour away. For six months following our arrival, we moved around on bikes and busses before finally purchasing a car. We were on call 24/7; ready to respond if serious issues with the North would arise. This actually happened on a few occasions and, since we had no phone, the authorities would alert us by driving a truck through the village blowing its horn. When we heard that racket, we had to get into uniform as quickly as possible and report to the base.
Our lives were, for the most part, pleasant. I took some college courses and we joined our unit’s co-ed volleyball team. We would play against units from other bases and against teams from the “Korean Augmentation to the United States Army,” or KATUSA. “Augmentation” actually referred to Korean nationals who were working on the base. Following games, we would join our buddies at a Korean nightclub called Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that admitted nobody except American GIs and “women of the night,” to use a politer term for them than “hooks,” which we actually used.
In 1985 our daughter Jennifer was born in the 120th Evac Hospital in Seoul, which was a pitiful environment. Six of us women in labor were laid side-by-side in a large room. I spent 27 hours in labor. During much of it I argued with stony-hearted corpsmen who refused to give me a C-section. Jennifer was finally born January 18. At least that was the Korean date; it was still the 17th in America. Following Korea, we spent four years at the National Security Agency (NSA), Fort Meade, Maryland.
It was a long road from my service in Korea to my current life as owner of Concord’s Express Employment Professionals, but I guess that story will have to wait for another article.
During my six years serving Uncle Sam, I like to think that I did my part in helping the Free World resist the forces of chaos and anarchy that continually threatened to overwhelm us. Things don’t seem to be getting any better. Nobody could imagine the number of people who right now are working to preserve the freedom of our Land of the Free.
During this Fourth of July, and every day, let’s give them the thanks and support that they so richly deserve.