by Rodney Norman
Three years ago, while on an exercise in Korea, I killed a man. It happened during a combined forces event where we partnered with our Republic of Korea counterparts and practiced defending against an attack from the North. The big show always kicked off at the end of August, and I participated in the war games a year earlier when I first arrived in country. I admit I was excited when I saw it come back around on the unit calendar.
The exercise represented my last hoorah before rotating stateside to all the people and things I had missed, and I was ready to get it done. My motivation to string cable, connect phones, and get the communications hub up and running surged through me, but Chief Mathis threw a few of us a giant curveball. He said the new guys needed experience and told us “old hats” to suck it up and pull details. I drew guard duty, and that was all it took—all it took for one man to live the rest of his life in guilt and at the same time impose a death sentence on another.
Manning an Entry Control Point (ECP) on a remote hilltop a few miles away from the DMZ was not the most glamorous job I could imagine. I actually preferred day shift and seeing the little green blinking lights on the phones when they were working. I flew my nerd flag high and with great pride. A nerd warrior was still a warrior. That night I felt less of a POG (person other than grunt) than usual for once.
Still, the prospect of guarding a three-foot opening in a C-wire fence and checking IDs against a roster did not thrill me, but I was all smiles anyway. I had tickets to catch the freedom bird in three days, but before I flew away on those beautiful silvery wings that would carry me back to the land of no ration cards and full-size vehicles, I had to convoy to Hill 207. I wish I had never gone. In my honest opinion, my leadership should never have sent me there in the first place.
Most units would exempt someone so close to rotating out from any exercises, but Chief Mathis was a hardass. I never heard him letting anyone out of an exercise unless they were leaving before it started. He squeezed every ounce of manpower like a kid with a lemonade stand and only one lemon. But I had mandatory appointments in Osan and only had to pull a single night shift. I thought at the time it would be a cakewalk.
The most excitement I expected was some inspector trying to sneak past me with a fake ID or maybe a scout probing the perimeter and throwing us into alarm blue. It took me a while to get past not using alarm red to signal an imminent attack, but the South Koreans already use alarm red to signal Japan is invading. I thought it was weird when I found out they still considered Japan a threat at all. Historically, I understood why, but North Korea was much more of a problem than Japan. Still, I doubted the exercise planners would give us anything real challenging the very first night. Not to mention, thunderstorms had been in the area since sundown. Lightning and rain were safety concerns that usually kept scenarios to a minimum, but those concerns were not enough to keep me dry.
I stayed busy enough the first few hours with a steady flow of shift change personnel and overachieving lieutenants going back and forth from the cantonment area to the tech site in a desperate attempt to get the comms functioning before the war games started. After midnight the flow slowed to a trickle, and an hour later it dried up completely. That was when the real mental gymnastics began. You did not want to get caught sleeping on duty. Exercise or not, that would land you in an Olympic-sized swimming pool of hot water.
I pulled out all the tricks I had learned to keep a person vigilant. I chewed the little cinnamon squares of Chiclets gum and drank copious amounts of Taster’s Choice instant coffee that people did not want from their MREs (thank God for the roving patrol that relieved me every hour to hit the latrine). I did my best impression of an English guard when the coffee buzz wore off — not the kind that didn’t move no matter what, but the ones that exaggerated every gesture. I marched back and forth in front of the wire swinging my arms high and wide and spinning around on my boot heels while cradling my rifle. I pretended I had one of those big black furry hats and cocked my chin back. I worried a bit about Chief catching me goofing around and putting a boot up my ass, but in all honesty, I preferred a boot to the posterior over the insane amount of trouble that came with falling asleep at my post. Boredom can be your worst enemy on a long night of guarding something, but another equally challenging opponent is nature.
In my hometown of Brownsville, Arkansas, the weather can change without warning. My dad always said, “If you don’t like the weather wait ten minutes. It’ll change.” In Korea, the weather was so fickle you would only have to wait five. The rain, that began my shift as a light sprinkling, had become a full-on downpour. Miniature rivers and lakes appeared in the low areas and filled muddy boot-shaped impressions. My poncho kept me mostly dry except for the area between the top of my boot and my knee, but the rain beat my eyelids down with its rhythmic drumming. I don’t think I was ever fully asleep, but I sure wasn’t fully awake either.
At first, I thought the loud booming sound I heard was thunder. It wasn’t until I shook the rain-induced cobwebs from my eyes did I see the swarm of red lights bouncing toward me, splashing through the puddles. I recognized the circles of red lights. They were from a bunch of government issued flashlights, the kind that look like a tiny periscope from a cartoon. My kid brother asked me once why I used a red lens in my flashlight instead of the brighter, clear one. I recited my training to him in the same exact tone my instructor had. I told him that the red lens keeps our eyes more adjusted to the dark. I counted six flashlights running toward me. This was not part of the exercise. Something was wrong.
The first flashlight that arrived belonged to Chief Mathis. I shined my flashlight on him looking for his ID to check against the roster. Chief wasn’t wearing a cover and beads of water poured down his bald head. His face was splotchy and flushed. Either from irritation or from humping through the mud from his cot, I couldn’t tell which, but Chief always looked one second from pissed off. He acted as if I wasn’t even there and tried to roll right past me, but I stepped in front of him.
“What’s your problem, Airman Sutton?” Chief asked.
“No problem, Chief, just need to see your ID.”
Normally, you could let someone pass on the basis of personal recognition, but Colonel Hodges made it perfectly clear during the exercise brief that no one stepped foot on his site without being checked. Chief knew this, and at first, I thought it was a scenario like in basic where you’re pulling door guard and the drill instructor tries to get in the barracks to see how you handle yourself.
“I haven’t got time for games, Sutton,” he said.
“Sorry, Chief, Colonel Hodges said no—
“Don’t patronize me. I know what he said.” His face was hot enough I thought I saw the raindrops turn into steam. He grumbled, what I can only imagine, were some choice words as he stomped off in the direction of his tent.
The rest followed protocol without giving me any hassle. From the roster, I discovered that they were all from power production. Armed with that info, it didn’t take me long to access what had happened. The noise I had heard in my half-dazed state was not thunder at all—it was a generator that went boom boom.
Chief returned about ten minutes later with his ID card held out in front of him like some groupie trying to get backstage at a rock concert. Except he didn’t look excited. He looked pissed. I checked the roster while he stood there fuming with each sigh and labored breath. The roving patrol came right after Chief went on site, and I needed a few minutes in the can. All the activity had my juices flowing.
I finished my business in the turquoise porta-potty they always used for exercises, stopped by the water buffalo (which is just what we called a big green metal tank we kept drinking water in) to fill my canteen, and returned to my post. One of the guys from the roving patrol asked if I had a spare battery for my radio when I got back. I could hear both radios they carried chirping, which was a telltale sign that the radio would soon be no more useful than a brick. Without the generator, we had gone from exercise operations to camping. I told them I only had the one battery, but since I had not used the radio much, I thought it would last until my shift was over.
The patrol had really hooked me up while I was gone. They brought me an old folding chair from a field desk and a MRE from the mess tent. I cringed a little when I saw it was Beef Frankfurters—better known as ‘The five fingers of death.’ There was enough salt in that brown plastic bag to dry out a small lake or turn a normal size person into a walking, talking, mummy of preservatives. I didn’t let the patrol see my displeasure in their meal selection (beggars can’t be choosers). They marched off after I thanked them for covering for me and bringing me the chair and food.
I had just sat down and was about to open my meal when Chief and the power production troops plodded through on their way back to the cantonment area. Chief looked pissed as usual, but this time, all of them shared the same frustrated expression. I overheard the power troops griping about not getting a part they needed until tomorrow afternoon. Chief actually complained more about the backup generator failing than not having the part or the main one blowing up in the first place. I was just happy they left without really noticing me at all.
The rain stopped, leaving a humid earthy scent behind. I sat on the tiny chair and pulled out the packet containing the miniature hot dogs. Stars dotted the sky as the clouds cleared away, and I felt for the first time that the hard part of my shift was over. When the generator first died, the site was as dark as the underside of a pillow, but a sliver of moon peeked from behind scattered clouds and lit the area up fairly well. I snacked on the hot dogs that instantly forced me to take a swig from my canteen. I actually knew a guy that worked in vehicle maintenance that could drink the hot-dog juice straight from the packet. Told him since he could do that, he probably could drink ocean water with no problem. I tried to do it too that night but ended up spitting the liquid saltlick out while laughing.
The splish-splash of someone running toward me stopped my laughter. This time I didn’t see any swarms of red lights, or any other light for that matter. My first thought was something else went wrong and Chief was in such a hurry that he left his flashlight like he left his ID card the last time. My eyes rolled automatically as I waited for the silhouette to get close enough to be angry with me. The shape ran straight at me, but it was not getting any bigger and definitely not the shape of the slightly rotund Chief. I flicked on my flashlight but pointed it at the ground and continued to wait until the runner was closer.
The panting breath and groans of pain caught me off guard. It worried me. My heart pumped faster with each sloshing stride the shadow took. The figure offered no greeting or sign to convey he was a friendly. My nerves fired and kicked in my fight response. I gripped my rifle tight. The weapon was only loaded with blanks, but an M-16 could make quite a club in a pinch. Even though it was a few hours before sunrise, I was more awake than I had been all night. Then it hit me. This was the Chief. He was screwing with me for giving him a hard time. The weather cleared up, and he worked it out to where the inspectors would give me a scenario. I stood up confident just like when you figure out that you’re dreaming and you are really the one that is in control. I told myself no matter what I would not lose my cool or my bearing and beat Chief at his own game.
I lifted my flashlight and pointed it at the shadow running at me. You would have thought I just hit a vampire with a beam of holy sunlight straight from heaven’s pearly gates the way that young boy recoiled. At least, he looked like a young boy. Korean men looked small compared to the average American frame, and at just over six feet tall, I towered over most of them.
As the kid lowered his hands, I thought he looked maybe thirteen or fourteen. He was without doubt a Korean. Dark hair, thin eyes, slightly rounded face. I did not recognize the uniform he wore. Under the red light, it was more faded and splotchy than our Korean counterparts or our woodland uniforms were for that matter. A light colored patch caught my attention. It stood apart from the rest of the uniform, and it was in middle the chest, about the same location as our nametags. I thought it was a crappy design—shouting, ‘Please, shoot me here’.
“Halt, who goes there?” I asked. It is the standard training response when you feel threatened at ECP.
The boy responded to my question with a smattering of very fast, very unintelligible Korean words. I had been here a year, and I had the basics down. Where was the bathroom? the phone? the beer? Nothing this kid said made sense to me. He put his hands up and walked slowly toward me. My initial thought was that I won some sort of prize for pissing Chief off, since he got an actual Korean to play in this scenario.
“Stop!” He walked steadily closer to me. “I said fucking stop!” He listened and quit moving. It still amazes me that the f-bomb is universally understood no matter the language.
I grabbed my radio, “Command Post, this is ECP.”
I repeated my call for the Command Post, but again all I received was another pair of chirps. After no response, I tried the roving patrol, but it was useless. My radio was just a brick with an antenna.
The boy inched toward me again, and that is when I leveled my rifle on him. He seemed as if he were pleading with his palms turned upward. I am glad he took those two extra steps. If he hadn’t, I would have never seen the blood.
I could not believe this was really happening. Part of me clung to the idea that this was an elaborate ruse crafted by a pissed off and slightly overweight Chief, and the red light shining on the inky liquid oozing from the gashes in the palms of his hands were all fake. Reality shook me awake and reminded me this was too much even for an exercise this big. At that moment, I realized I had to deal with what was happening in front of me. There was a wounded Korean begging me for help. Then another thought smacked me in the head. The reason I didn’t recognize the uniform was because it was a North Korean uniform.
I was in a real pickle at this point. The roving patrol would not be back for at least half an hour, and I had no way of calling for help. Even screaming wouldn’t help me get anyone’s attention as big as our site was. I couldn’t leave my post either. Exercise or not. There were actual classified secret materials on the site that I had to protect.
“Okay. Okay. Take it easy, bud,” I said, lowering my rifle.
I approached him nice and slow. His hands were cut up pretty bad and both had at least three punctures. The kind injury climbing over a barbed wire fence would likely produce, I guessed. I took out my canteen and poured water to clean the wounds. Never in my life did I think I would really use the first aid kit on my web belt, but I did that night. My self-aid and buddy care instructor would have been proud the way I bandaged the young man’s hands. The kid was obviously in a lot of pain, tired, and the fear in his eyes bordered on shock. His uniform was soaking wet and he shook even though the night was not cold.
I pointed to his hands and asked, “Better?”
He just stared at me with eyes that looked far away. My expression was mix of surprise, confusion and disbelief. I had heard rumors of people trying to escape from the North since I arrived in country. The intelligence briefs at the time had indicated that the reasons were mostly due to lack of food and medicine. A rare few made it across the border. I felt sorry for anyone in such a desperate situation. This kid looked too young to be away from his mother, let alone fleeing across the DMZ and navigating hills in a soaking wet uniform. I smiled, gave him a thumbs up, and told him everything would be okay. I know he didn’t understand a word I was saying, but he lifted his bandaged hand. He returned the gesture but not the smile.
My plan was to just sit tight, do what I could to keep him calm, stay at my post until the patrol showed up, and go from there. I took off my poncho. It wasn’t much, but I figured anything to keep him a little warmer might help. He looked weak, and his knees wobbled as he put the poncho over his uniform. I wondered how long it had been since he had anything to eat.
He immediately stiffened up when I turned to grab my half-eaten MRE. I moved slow and deliberate, letting him see everything I did. He was curious when I reached in the bag, took out the pack of potato sticks. I held them out for him and shook them. He didn’t budge. I opened the bag and ate few of the crunchy sticks. I rubbed my belly while I smiled. Hunger, I am sure, forced him to take the bag when I held it out again. The first bite he took was slow, but after that, he wolfed them down so fast he almost choked. I handed him my canteen, and he finished off every drop of water. I wished I had more to give him, but I consoled myself with the fact that he would probably get a hot meal soon.
The food and water seemed to put some bones back in his legs, but the kid was still real skittish. Every sound made him jump or flinch. He watched me close, and from the way he looked at me, I doubted he trusted me even after bandaging his wounds and feeding him. He never relaxed just as I never left my post. We were both too guarded for our own good and trust took time and tools we didn’t have.
I kept thinking it would be so much easier if we could talk to each other. I should have learned more Korean. I wished that I had. I could have told him to not to freak out and that everything was okay when the patrol came back around. They marched up in a trot and spooked the kid something fierce. He tore off and went back the same way he came. I don’t know what he went through to get to my ECP that night, and I sure didn’t understand why he would run away. All I could figure was the fear of the unknown overpowered him. We were the unknown, and he had spent his whole life on the other side of the fence, where we were the enemy.
When the patrol got to me, they said they didn’t see anyone, running or anything else. I told them what happened, and they ran it right up the chain. It didn’t take the command post long to send out someone else to take over at the ECP, and my relief informed me that Chief wanted a personal briefing.
I dreaded going to talk to Chief, but I didn’t drag my feet. I figured it was better to get it over with than to have it hang over my head. When I pushed the flap of Chief’s tent open and stepped inside, I thought there would be more people. At least two, since both Chief and Colonel Hodges shared a tent, but only Chief was there.
I expected him to be angry or rant, but he didn’t. He told me calmly to sit on his cot and explain what happened. There was no coarseness to his tone or agitation. It was even-tempered and, for the first time I had ever heard in my life, compassionate. I told him everything right from the beginning. When I was finished, he put his hand on my shoulder and told me everything would be fine. He said if my integrity was strong enough to challenge him for an ID, then he could trust that what I said was the truth. As I left his tent, he told me that he was proud of the way I handled myself.
Over the next day, it seemed every Korean investigator, officer and senior enlisted in the country wanted to know in detail what happened. I told them all the same exact story I told the patrol and Chief, told it so many times I could have said it backwards. Some people you could tell didn’t believe me while others wanted to comb the peninsula for the boy I had encountered. I heard they sent people to look for the kid, but they never found any trace of him.
I was nervous that the whole thing would keep me from leaving. Chief shielded me from a lot of the investigation after the first round of questioning was over and my written statement was on file. He even made sure I left for Osan on time to catch the plane to the States the next day. My mood brightened the closer I got to the hotel, and I chalked it up in my mind that the kid probably had some relatives or someone that he could speak with in the South that could help take care of him.
I stayed in the same hotel that everyone leaving Korea stayed in before leaving on the rotator. It had a red, wavy dragon across the top of a white stone building. I thought it was paradise compared to the barracks I had lived in over the past year. I was excited to leave, and I thought nothing could tarnish the overwhelming happiness I felt knowing that I would return to my family and friends. I was wrong. In the lobby, I saw a Korean newspaper. I couldn’t read it, but I didn’t have to either. The picture horrified me and rocked me with a guilt I will carry to my grave.
The picture was of a North Korean soldier shot trying to cross DMZ. The paper blurred out his face, but I knew who it was. It was my poncho and the bandages on his hands were the ones I put there. I may not have pulled the trigger, but I should have done something to keep him from running. I could have left my post and caught him. I could have taken the Chief being mad and yelling at me. Like I said, I didn’t pull the trigger myself. I chose to stay at my post and maintain my discipline. Looking back now, I still ask myself the same question: What was the difference?