You're in the Legion now

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You're in the Legion now

Lee Chang-hyung woke up one day in June 1991 feeling like a failure. He was 28, his farming business had recently gone belly-up and a relationship he had had with a woman he loved had ended. So depressed was Mr. Lee that he even contemplated suicide. Instead, he bought a one-way airplane ticket to Paris, hoping his luck would change. In fact, his life changed.

When a taxi dropped him in front of Fort de Nogent, a small garrison on the outskirts of Paris, all Mr. Lee had with him was 1.7 million won and a scrap of paper. He gave the paper to a man in uniform who seemed to be standing guard duty. The guard did not seem surprised by Mr. Lee's presence, even as he looked at the paper on which only one sentence was scribbled, in French, "Je veux entrer dans la legion etrangere."

"I want to join the French Foreign Legion."

So began Mr. Lee's adventures in an elite fighting force that can be traced to 1831. The French Foreign Legion was formed when King Louis Philippe of France decided to create an army unit composed not of French citizens but other nationalities. Since then, the Legion has become romanticized in books and on film as an incredibly tough place and a shelfter for the downtrodden and misfits. If you can survive in the Legion, legend has it, you can survive anywhere.

Handing the piece of paper back, the guard waved Mr. Lee through the gate.

"When I served my military duty in Korea," Mr. Lee says as he sits in a Seoul beer hall, "I had heard about the Legion. I don't know why but I thought that place could give me a new life."

After being frisked by a duty officer, Mr. Lee was shown to the third floor where he went through another body search and filled out some forms. When the formalities were done, he received a sweatsuit and was led to the room next door, where about 40 wanna-be Legionnaires were waiting in the same outfits.

"Men stared at me," Mr. Lee remembers. "Some of them had dragon or snake tattoos, while others had long hair running down their shoulders."

Mr. Lee admits to being scared, but he kept thinking about his days in the Korean army. "Back then, I heard all about the Legion," he says. "I thought if I ever reached a low point in my life, that might be a way out."

A television set in the waiting room from time to time played promotional tapes of the French Foreign Legion. For the next five days, officials questioned him. He was asked the same questions over and over, and he explained as well as he could, often using hand gestures, why he wanted to join the French Foreign Legion. He mentioned the failures in his life and how he heard about the Legion when he was serving in the Korean Army. "I think," he told the men in charge, "that this place can give me meaning to my life."

The officers grunted and gave him some intelligence and psychological tests. He also underwent a thorough physical examination.

The tests took several days, and as they went on other recruits showed up. Some stayed, some left. Finally, on about the 14th day after he arrived, Mr. Lee and 40 others were herded into a bus, which took them to a train station in Paris, and then on to Marseille. Mr. Lee says that he had no idea where the train was going. "I just thought we were going to the boot camp," he says. "After all that waiting, I was eager to go anywhere."

In Marseille they took another bus. A half-hour later they arrived in Aubagne, the headquarters of the Legion, in southeast France. More tests were conducted, including background checks. A popular belief has long existed that criminals use the French Foreign Legion as a means of hiding out. That may have happened in the past, but Mr. Lee says people with criminal records or others on the run from the law are weeded out. "They use every source that is available, such as embassies and Interpol," he says.

According to Mr. Lee, volunteers were shown the door after each test result was posted. But the tests, both short and long, never seemed to end. What made things worse for Mr. Lee was that after each exam one had practically nothing to do until the next one.

There were physical tests as well. The final physical exam was to run 2,800 meters in at least 12 minutes. After successfully making it through all those trials, the finalists were given the right to visit a home for aging, former Legionnaires, in Puyloubier.

"None of the men there were completely normal physically," Mr. Lee says, sipping a beer. "There was always something missing -- either a leg or an arm. Some people were paralyzed. Honestly, I didn't feel good. I felt uncomfortable, particularly at first. It started to dawn on me that that could be me lying in the bed."

The visit, Mr. Lee decided later, was designed to show new volunteers the reality of the Legion. But what most impressed him was how all those veterans were working, not just sitting around like normal retirees. Some worked the home's vineyards, taking care of grapes. Veteran Legionnaires make their own wine which is distributed for free to those still active in the service. Those veterans who had trouble walking worked on souvenirs that were sold at the Legion's gift shops at major bases.

The French Foreign Legion typically has 7,000 men serving at one time. During its 171 years of existence, the Legion has taken part in more than 3,600 combat engagements. Once accepted into the Legion, one has to serve at least five years, after which a volunteer's contract can be renewed. One is eligible for French citizenship after the first tour if so desired, and if one serves for more than 15 years he receives a pension, equivalent to 70 percent of his last salary.

The basic monthly salary these days is approximately 1,000 euro ($1,000), not much different than it was in 1991. If a Legionnaire is dispatched outside France, the pay doubles.

After nearly two months and 100 tests, Lee Chang-hyung was declared eligible to enter into the French Foreign Legion's training.

Mr. Lee was sent to the 4th Foreign Legion Regiment at Castelnaudary, where all volunteers are trained. There he was placed in a training platoon of 46 men. The basic training period, then and now, is four months. The first month of training was conducted outdoors and is considered the most grueling. The famous kepi blanc, the Legion's distinctive, white, pail-shaped hat, is bestowed on those successfully completing this period.

In boot camp there is always one drill sergeant who makes the life of every trainee as miserable as possible, under the pretext of weeding out the weaker troops. Mr. Lee remembers a sergeant named Stemilar, a German. "He did his best to make training close to hell," Mr. Lee says.

While the platoon was in the mountains, one of Mr. Lee's comrades, a Pole named Volkoski, took a chocolate bar from a drill sergeant's bag. Before supper, the whole platoon was assembled in front of the tents and after threats were made. Finally, Volkoski turned himself in.

"Eat this," Sergeant Stemilar ordered Volkoski, throwing a chocolate and some beef from the dinner onto the ground. After a while, Sergeant Stemilar dumped a pot of beef stew over Volkoski's head. Meanwhile, temperatures dropped to 20 degrees centigrade below zero.

"Later on, I found out that all that was part of the training," Mr. Lee says. "We were dispatched to numerous places in the world and being mentally strong was just as important as being physically strong. During the first month of the training, they make conditions as inhuman as possible and food is at a minimum. They want to make you quit."

Mr. Lee admits that more than once he was on the verge of giving up. "The Kepi Blanc March is the toughest part," he rememberes. "One hundred kilometers has to be covered in three days with full gear that weighs about 35 kilograms. I don't know how I finished it. I wanted to sit, I wanted to lie down, but at the end I just kept walking to end all the pain."

On Sept. 25, 1991, Mr. Lee put on a kepi blanc.

Given a choice of assignments, Mr. Lee elected to serve in the 3rd Regiment of the Legion, in French Guyana, the tiny country north of Brazil. The regiment's mission there was to protect satellite launching facilities.

During the next few years, he was assigned to numerous overseas missions, to such places as Chad, in central Africa, Djibouti in eastern Africa and Bosnia. "In 1995, I served as part of a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and the situation was not stable at all," he says. "Artillery fire was flying over our heads and our unit was ordered to provide support fire at a specific spot. I don't know whether I killed anyone."

His tour with the Legion came to an end in early 1996 when his father died at the age of 74 and he needed to go back to take care of the family. The Legion does not permit its personnel to leave France or its bases under any circumstances.

Although needing only a couple of months to finish his five-year contract he decided he had to leave for home and asked for permission. It was denied at first, but after a personal interview with the commander, Mr. Lee was allowed to leave in May 1996. "They did not understand our culture, but they tried to and I was officially allowed to go," Mr. Lee says. "Otherwise, I would have been branded a runaway, never been allowed to set foot on French soil again."

After his return, Mr. Lee tried his luck in the meat distributing business for about two-and-a-half years. Tiring of that, he became a professional card player for a spell, and now drives a taxi cab in Seoul.

Last year, he got married. His wife, 38, is a private tutor. On their honeymoon, the couple went to France, and while there, he convinced his wife to visit the Legion headquarters in Aubagne. There he learned that the Legion had approximately 80 Koreans. "When I served there were fewer than 10," he says.

Every now and then Mr. Lee meets someone in Korea who had worn the kepi blanc. "Some people might brag of being a Legionnaire," he says "but for me the Legion takes on the meaning of home. I can always go back there." Last fall, a Korean telephoned him and asked for advice about preparing to join the Legion.

"I drew up a schedule to make the man fit and sent it off with a letter," Mr. Lee says. "I know he made it, but I didn't hear a thing afterward."

Lee Chang-hyung tells anyone interested in the Legion that it is a place that teaches endurance at its highest level. For those who expect something glorious, however, the Legion is not going to fill any voids. "It's a place where you fight with yourself," he says, "where every day you test your will."

by Brian Lee

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