Boot camp grads get six-hour R&R
Nonsan, a small city in South Chungcheong, is normally pretty sleepy. There are 125,000 Korean soldiers at the nearby Nonsan Army Recruit Training Center, but they don’t get out much. In fact, they’re confined to their barracks 24-7.
But last Wednesday, one of Nonsan’s jjimjilbang, or Korean-style bathhouse, was packed as army recruits shed their camouflage, climbed into bathhouse outfits and snacked, watched TV and chatted with relatives and friends.
The recruits were taking advantage of a new policy that gives them a precious six hours of freedom after they complete five weeks of boot camp. Worried moms, dads and siblings are pouring into the city to see if their boys have survived basic training physically and psychologically.
Nonsan itself is experiencing an economic boom. More than 100 cars filled the jammed parking lot of the jjimjilbang, just five minutes away by car from the Nonsan training center. Inside, there was barely room to squeeze through the 200 soldiers and visitors chatting urgently after weeks of separation and snacking on chicken and cold beverages.
Hundreds of thousands of soldiers have passed through Nonsan, population 137,100, since the training center was founded in 1951. A new batch of 1,200 to 1,300 recruits arrive almost every week. In the past, the locals only saw them when they were bused in for boot camp and sent away for their first assignments. Until the policy was changed last year, a Korean soldier wasn’t given his first leave to see family or friends until 135 days into his duty. That was considered a way to create “strong soldiers.”
But starting last May, permission was granted for soldiers to see their parents and friends in the training center at the end of boot camp.
In December, the Ministry of National Defense announced a policy to allow recruits in all 35 training centers nationwide to leave the grounds after a ceremony marking the end of boot camp. It said Wednesday that “the response from both the citizens of the districts and the recruits has been very good.”
The soldiers are granted six hours of freedom, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The first leave was given Jan. 4. Fresh recruit Park Jae-hoon, 20, hit the jjimbilbang to decompress after five weeks of pent-up stress. “Eating food outside of the training center,” he said while massaging his grandmother’s shoulders, “and taking a nap in a jjimjilbang invigorates me for army life.”
“Usually there are very few customers on week days,” said Lee Wan-ho, 50, a worker at the jjimjilbang, “so the rush of soldiers on leave from the barracks is a great boost to the business.”
Many Nonsan establishments are offering 10 percent discounts to recruits and their families.
Coffee shops at a nearby park were packed with soldiers and their visitors, who chatted away, enjoyed the scenery and watched the birds.
“Touring the neighborhood around the training center, my son’s expression brightened,” said Park Yong-hun, a 49-year-old father who came to visit his son from Pocheon, Gyeonggi.
By Kim Bang-hyun [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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