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Soldier says he was beaten into a 19-month coma

Nov 11,2014

An Army private who was in a coma for a year and seven months opened his eyes in an intensive care unit in September 2013, to the joy of his mother, who had spent every day at his bedside.

A year later, he finally told his family the cause of his grave injury: a random beating by his superior officers.

The news came as a shock to his family, who had been told by the Army that their son’s cerebral hemorrhage was the result of a congenital disorder, or a defect existing from birth.

According to a military police report dated the following day, Gu finished eating breakfast at 7 a.m. on Feb. 18, 2012, his 19th day at the unit. He completed his kitchen duties and returned to the soldiers’ dormitories.

Around 1 p.m., the report continued, Gu went to a recreation room on the first floor of the building and played games with his comrades. The report said that until then, he exhibited no suspicious symptoms.

But at 3 p.m., back in the dorm, Gu told fellow soldiers, “Why does my head hurt so much?”

According the report, a fellow soldier asked, “Does it hurt a lot?” But Gu did not respond and fell asleep on his bed.

Two hours later, Gu was reported to have cried out loud before running to the bathroom 35 meters (114 feet) away from his sleeping quarters, where he vomited.

The military report said Gu was transported to the hospital at 5 p.m. in a delirious state.

The report claimed the hemorrhage was due to cerebral arteriovenous malformation (AVM), or an abnormal connection between the arteries and veins in the brain. The malformation usually is congenital.

The report did not make mention of any external injuries.

But two years and seven months after the hemorrhage, Gu regained his ability to speak and he told his family a very different story.

The family told the JoongAng Ilbo that after regaining communicative skills in September, Gu told them in detail the situation leading up to the incident, the names and ranks of the senior soldiers who physically abused him and the method they used to beat him.

Gu said that after completing morning kitchen duties on Feb. 18, 2012, seven of his superiors called him to an isolated spot behind a warehouse around 300 meters from the dormitories.

Out of the blue, they beat him on the head with a two-by-four.

Gu said, “After I was hit, I lost consciousness, and was moved to the dorms when I regained consciousness briefly, but soon after I lost consciousness again.”

And he was in a vegetative state in a hospital ICU until he awoke in September 2013.

“Although it is quite rare, there is the possibility that a patient in a vegetative state, different from a brain-dead state, can naturally recover,” a forensic medicine professor at Konkuk University, Park Ui-woo, said. “Memory can be retained as well.”

Gu’s family allege that “the Army covered up the beating and claimed it was an accident,” according to one of the relatives.

They added that in the early days of Gu’s confinement, they discovered a wound on the back of his head, the relative said, and “raised the suspicion that there might have been an assault.” But “the Army simply said it was a bed sore.”

“A soldier who was perfectly fine in a phone conversation with his parents the day before suddenly ends up in a vegetative state,” an attorney who deals with military-related cases said, “but the Army doesn’t conduct a thorough investigation into the possibility of abuse or cruel treatment. From the perspective of the family, they cannot help but suspect that the Army was trying to cover up the case.”

The attorney added, “If Private Gu’s testimony is true, issues such as the delay in his transfer to the hospital after he collapsed may also be raised.”

Four hours passed between the time that Gu claimed he was beaten by the soldiers and the time he was transferred to the hospital, according to the military report.

Gu’s family is preparing a criminal suit.

“We weren’t convinced of the reason for our son’s collapse,” said his relative, “and posted remarks on the Blue House website and Internet forums and even submitted the case to the National Human Rights Commission but did not receive any help.

“Now that our child has regained consciousness and is saying with exactitude that he was beaten, we will reveal the truth through a criminal lawsuit.”

An Army official said, “At that time, a thorough investigation into the cause of the incident including the possibility of a beating or other harsh treatment was conducted.

“After transfer to the hospital, a reddish bruise on the back of [Gu’s] head was discovered, but following the attending doctor’s opinion that it was a bed sore, we concluded the incident was an accident. Gu’s family said they could not accept the conclusion at the time.”

According to military sources, the men Gu identified as his assailants have denied the accusations and are considering filing a countersuit against Gu’s family for libel.

The death in April of a 23-year-old Army private due to systematic abuse by his superiors in the 28th Infantry Division sparked national alarm at the culture of violent bullying in the barracks.


BY YOON JUNG-MIN [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]





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