Soldiers should hear from students

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Soldiers should hear from students

When I was young, students in elementary and middle schools had to write “letters of encouragement” to soldiers, usually for the Chuseok holiday or Armed Forces Day. We also used to send care packages.

While I found it rather bothersome to write a letter to someone I didn’t know, it provided me with a chance to think about the soldiers serving the country. I had to get help from my family to write the letter, and sometimes I felt disappointed not to get a response.

While students still write letters of encouragement to soldiers, it has become very rare. The sentimental connection between citizens and soldiers must be far weaker than it was when I was young.

It is not just because of the end of letter writing. In my childhood, the military practically dominated - or ruled over - society and had a considerable presence in our daily lives.

More than four decades later, the military’s status and role in our society has changed greatly. They can never rule over people, even in our worst nightmares. They are just the professional group that provides national defense. In the lives of civilians, the military has no special presence, aside from mandatory military duty. After the country accomplished economic development and democratization, the military returned to a very normal status in Korea.

I was thinking about the status and role of the military just in time for the Chuseok holiday. I wondered if students still write letters and whether the soldiers ever actually appreciated these letters.

In Korea, the soldiers are encouraged to keep in frequent contact with their family and loved ones. Wouldn’t they feel slightly awkward receiving letters from young students they’ve never met? Or perhaps those deployed abroad in Africa or the Middle East would be happy to receive letters of encouragement from students back home.

When I was young, combat troops were deployed in Vietnam. Antiwar protests were intense at the time. Many soldiers were injured or killed during the war, and the side effects from exposure to defoliants is still a serious social problem. But people often felt envious that some made a fortune in Vietnam. In fact, sending troops to Vietnam made a great contribution to the Korean economy.

The overseas deployment of Republic of Korea (ROK) troops resumed in 1991, when Korea joined the United Nations. ROK forces became a part of UN peacekeeping operations and multinational forces in the Gulf War, the Iraq war and the conflicts in Afghanistan. Aside from the Cheonghae division, which battles Somali pirates, most of the units focus on civilian operations and serving the locals. The Akh Unit, deployed to the United Arab Emirates, is assisting in training the UAE forces.

Peacekeeping operations are mostly in faraway countries like Somalia, Angola, East Timor, Haiti, Lebanon and Sudan. Korean soldiers overcome harsh environments and provide devoted service to the locals, enhancing the reputation of Korea. In Afghanistan and Iraq, ROK forces are known for their passionate service, helping the local residents despite dangerous circumstances.

Two months ago, I visited Korea’s deployed units in the Middle East, including the Combined Maritime Forces in Bahrain (where the Cheonghae Unit belongs), the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and Bagram Airfield.

When I visited the Akh Unit stationing in Al Ain, in the middle of the UAE desert, it was in 52 degree Celsius (126 degree Fahrenheit) heat, with harsh sand storms. There, the ROK Forces had gained the utmost respect and honor as one of the most advanced militaries in the world.

If elementary school students send letters of encouragement to soldiers deployed abroad, they will surely get responses. Unlike myself in my youth, the students of today would have many questions, and they will receive interesting answers, too.

Will the students blame me if I ask their teachers to give them the assignment of writing letters to the soldiers?

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kang Young-jin
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