A soldier fights a war for the right to servePee Woo-jin held her cup of cocoa and gazed out of the window at a coffee shop near the Suwon subway station on a recent afternoon. She was discharged from the Korean army in November and civilian life still seemed strange to her. “I still wake up automatically at 5:30 a.m. even though I should be taking longer naps,” said Ms. Pee. “It’s an old habit from my time in the army.”
Suddenly the 51-year-old woman gasps and clutches her hands close to her heart when a soldier in uniform walks down the street. A hint of a tear was visible in her eyes.
“Usually my emotions are calm but whenever I see those uniforms feelings deep inside of me are stirred up. I can’t believe that I am no longer in the military. Still at heart I am a soldier even though I no longer wear the uniform,” Ms. Pee said.
“If I were to be born again I would want to be born as a man.” For Ms. Pee life as a woman in the army was a difficult and constant challenge against gender inequality.
Ms. Pee, a lieutenant colonel, received an order last September from the Ministry of National Defense, instructing her to retire from her duties on Nov. 30. She was involuntarily discharged from the army, where she had served for nearly three decades, after a double mastectomy in 2002.
Ms. Pee said she had found out that she had breast cancer while taking a shower. “I found a hard lump and it did not disappear so after a few weeks I went to the hospital with my sister,” Ms. Pee said. “When the doctor told me it was cancer and that they had to remove part of my breast, I decided I would get rid of the other breast as well.”
Many people, including her doctor and her family, thought she was insane, but the former soldier decided she really wanted to remove them. “Sitting in the doctor’s office I imagined playing basketball topless with other male soldiers,” Ms. Pee said. “That’s how much I wanted to become more like one of the men.” She said the military has improved over the years but she felt some of the men still looked at her as a woman rather than as a soldier.
“They see a woman as someone weak they need to protect,” Ms. Pee said. “That has been a burden for me and for other colleagues of mine.” For this reason, Ms. Pee said, she has called her recently published book “Female Soldiers Do Not Like Chocolate.”
She had hoped to leave the army at the official retirement age, which would have given her several more years in uniform, but her time was cut short during a physical inspection last year when the military discovered that both of her breasts had been surgically removed. Military regulations dictate that if Ms. Pee had removed one breast she could have stayed in the army, but with both gone she was classified as a handicapped person, which meant an automatic discharge.
Ms. Pee appealed to the ministry to revise the military’s decision. Then she packed up, strapped on her sneakers and went on a cross-country trip in late October. In just 23 days she covered 800 kilometers from Haenam, South Jeolla province, to Goseong, where she arrived on Nov. 21. She wanted to show the world and the military that, even with cancer, she was physically fit and capable of enduring any physical hardship.
“It was no sweat since there is always marching in the army and I also wanted to show the military how fit I was. Words do not prove anything but action does,” Ms. Pee said. She added that she also wanted to work off all the frustration that she had experienced in the previous year. The way the military responded after her physical inspection made her feel as if she had committed a sin. Ms. Pee said after her discharge was announced in September she thought it was a good opportunity to take the trip, which she had always wanted to do. She would wake up every morning at 6:30 and keep on walking until the sun set.
“First couple of days I walked as hard as I could without any thoughts in my mind. After five days I began to notice the beautiful scenery and I could finally appreciate and enjoy the surroundings.”
During her trip, Ms. Pee said she saw an older lady walking along with her daughter-in-law and her granddaughter. “The three were smiling at each other. It was the most beautiful, radiant smile I have ever seen and I started to wonder if I could ever again smile like that upon the military, to whom I had devoted my life and still love unconditionally.”
The Defense Ministry reviewed Ms. Pee’s case on Dec. 13. “Of course I was nervous. For 40 minutes the revision committee members asked questions like why I had not reported the removal of my breasts and if the cancer is fully cured. They wanted certified proof.”
When she walked out the room Ms. Pee said she and her lawyer were confident that the ministry would reverse the decision to dismiss Ms. Pee from her duties. “I was told the final decision would be announced two days later,” Ms. Pee said.
However, it took less than two days for the revision board to make their final decision. In just four hours Ms. Pee’s hopes were shattered when her lawyer sent her a text message saying that the ministry had decided to refuse.
“I felt ridiculous and my mind went blank,” Ms. Pee said. “I just couldn’t believe what had happened. It hit me that all my years of devotion and love for the military had been a one-sided affair.”
Ms. Pee comes from a family of four sisters and one brother. She decided to join the army when she saw a wall-poster that depicted a woman in uniform. “Times were hard then and finding jobs after college wasn’t easy, especially for a woman. Most of the women sought out jobs as teachers or stewardesses,” Ms. Pee said. But when she looked at the poster it made her believe the army was a place where a person was judged by their rank, not by their gender. Being a soldier also seemed to offer the prospect of travel.
Although her father had formerly served in the army, that had little influence on her decision to join up.
At first her mother strongly opposed Ms. Pee’s decision to enlist, but it was too late to turn back as Ms. Pee had already applied and was accepted in 1979. “My mother wanted me to become a teacher,” she said.
However, the reality of the army was different from what Ms. Pee had imagined and fell well short of her expectations. “They saw me not as a soldier but as a woman. Instead of placing us in different branches such as infantry or artillery, we were placed in a branch called ‘Female Soldiers.’ Instead of wearing pants like male soldiers we were ordered to wear skirts and makeup. If we didn’t we were given penalty points. There were 12 of us and we shared a lipstick. That way without applying powder or mascara our male superior thought we all had makeup.”
Ms. Pee said she considered leaving the moment she completed her mandatory two-year service.
But even before she could complete two years, the regulations within the military changed, in 1981. For the first time, female soldiers were assigned to different departments including the military police and information. Women were able to train with the boys. Ms. Pee was assigned to a parachute troop and went along when her male colleagues jumped from helicopters. “It was a dream come true,” she said. As time progressed more opportunities opened up and in 1990 she was able to take the controls of a helicopter. She became only the second woman in Korea’s military to pilot a helicopter. Yet Ms. Pee said there were still many obstacles to overcome. “Regulations have changed to provide more opportunity for women but the mentality of the army remained the same,” she said. “Sometimes I felt that the men thought woman had to be protected,” she said. “For this reason, to be seen as a soldier and not as a woman, I strapped my breasts down with bandages so it would look like they weren’t there. I wanted to look flat-chested.”
In recent years several top female officers have been been diagnosed with cancer. Among five top officers three were told they had the disease and two are now deceased. Lieutenant Colonel Yang Hae-jeong, a colleague of Ms. Pee, died in 1999. Colonel Eum Ok-sook died in 2000. Ms. Pee is the third to be diagnosed with cancer.
“It just shows how burdened we female soldiers are in trying to survive in a male-oriented community,” she said.
Nowadays she said she is busy doing interviews with the press and radio shows.
And she is preparing to file a lawsuit against the military. But her goal is not to gain fame or fortune. Rather it is to continue serving the military. “I have no grudge against the military. How could I? I never regretted my choice to serve in the military, which is a dignified job,”she said. “Nowadays, as a woman, the only wish I have is to have a family and a child of my own. I have come to realize at a late age the pleasure of the natural beauty of being a woman and the novelty it represents.”
Ms. Pee said, even though she might not be called back to serve the army, she will try to help the military from the outside, seeking to improve its regulations against sexual inequality and the treatment of all its soldiers, which she said will help strengthen the public’s trust and respect for the military.
by Lee Ho-jeong