First Korean female officer qualifies for U.S. EIB
Korean Army 1st Lt. Jeong Ji-eun, a platoon leader in the 115th Mechanized Infantry Battalion, 90th Mech. Inf. Brigade, 30th Mech. Inf. Division, is a highly trained and physically hardened soldier.
Jeong is also a woman.
The 26-year-old was the first Korean female officer to pass the training. A total of 630 American and Korean soldiers applied for the recent test and Jeong was the only female, one of 50 Koreans. Of the 131 who ultimately received the badge, 21 were Korean.
The annual test requires candidates to pass a physically challenging series of more than 40 infantry tasks including a 12-mile road march in under three hours while wearing full combat gear.
In a recent interview with the JoongAng Sunday, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, Jeong discussed her life as a female soldier and how she feels about her new nickname, “G.I. Jane.”
A. I get that a lot. Soldiers don’t necessarily need a big build. The mentality is what matters more. People tend to think female soldiers are muscular, like sports stars, but that’s not the reality. But it certainly wasn’t easy to pass the test with a body like mine.
The lyrics of Korea’s national military song refer to a soldier as a “real man,” and there’s constant debate that it should be changed since there are so many soldiers like you. Any thoughts?
It’s a military song. There’s no need to focus so much on minor details. I’m not totally comfortable hearing those verses, but it’s easier to think that they include women who act manly. The military isn’t a place just for men. There are more and more women voluntarily joining.
In college, you studied police administration.
I never felt more hurt in my entire life. I was disqualified from the military academy. I was confident I would make the cut, but I didn’t, so I needed a backup plan. That’s how I got into studying police administration. But I was lucky. Soon after I got into college, females were allowed to apply for the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). I didn’t hesitate to sign up, and I got in.
Given the fact that you studied police administration, haven’t you ever thought about working for the military police, or going into law?
I wanted to serve in the infantry. They attack first and retreat last. Sometimes we engage in hand-to-hand combat and I think it’s the core branch of the army that determines a country’s final victory or defeat.
Why did you apply for the EIB?
Since long, long ago, my dream was to become a soldier. I just loved watching soldiers in their uniforms. That’s why I chose this path, to become the best soldier possible. The Korean Army has studied the U.S. EIB system and is currently running a similar program, for which I applied last year and qualified. I wanted to take things a bit further, which is how I managed to apply for the latest test hosted by the U.S. Army. But I have a long road ahead of me. To test my limits, I’m willing to endlessly confront new challenges.
Some call you Korea’s G.I. Jane. What are the hardships of being a female soldier?
I hear that a lot. It’s mentally challenging. I’m planning to watch the movie soon. But a movie is just a movie. Being a woman in the military doesn’t make things any more difficult than if I had been a man. It’s worth a try. I’m a platoon leader. I lead 21 other members and they all follow my orders. But when in war, I have to take responsibility over 21 lives. In that sense, gender really doesn’t play that big of a role. But there is one thing I could complain about. Whenever we’re outdoors on field training, I want to roll around with them in the tent like other guys normally do and feel that physical bond. It’s tough to do that when you’re of the opposite sex.
About the EIB test, finishing 12 miles within three hours doesn’t sound easy at all.
The EIB test is the same for both men and women. No differentiation. The hardest part was throwing a grenade. I had to hurl it 35 meters (115 feet) away and make it land on the target spot. Personally, it seemed impossible given my height: 160 centimeters (5 feet 2 inches). One way to make it work was to have it drop in front of the target and roll on the ground towards it. But to my misfortune, it rained the day before the test. There was no way the grenade would roll on mud. I was devastated. Just as I was about to give up, I had an idea. I tried to take the test as late in the day as possible. And God helped. It turned sunny and the ground dried up.
Let’s talk about money. How much do you earn?
About 1.7 million won ($1,494) per month before taxes. I’m not financially capable of gifting my parents with cash, but it’s enough to personally get by. I get vacation once every month for three days. But as a platoon leader, I always have to be close enough to get back to the unit within an hour in case of an emergency. So I can’t go far. I usually hang out in the neighborhoods of Yeonsinnae, Shinchon and Hongdae in Seoul. I meet my friends and watch movies. Sometimes I get really lonely. Last year, my parents moved to the United States, so I’m alone in Korea. I miss the warmth from all those family dinners.
What about your boyfriend? Does he ever get intimidated by you?
I’m a Taekwondo third dan and Judo second dan. But I use it against my enemies, not my boyfriend. He’s a lot stronger than me, and a brave soldier. He’s a lieutenant commander in the Korea Army Special Forces. We’ve been dating since college. He says he likes the manly side of me.
What’s your goal?
I want to be like U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore in “We Were Soldiers” (2002), played by American actor Mel Gibson. There’s a scene in which he gives a short speech before his battalion leaves for Vietnam. It goes like this: “I can’t promise you that I will bring you all home alive. But this I swear before you and before Almighty God: That when we go into battle, I will be the first to set food on the field, and I will be the last to step off. And I will leave no one behind.” That’s so cool. I’ve never dreamed or lived outside the military. The military is my everything. I’ve never dreamed of anything else.
Even my all-time favorite book is “The Art of War” [a Chinese military treatise written by Sun Tzu in the 5th century B.C.].
BY KIM DONG-RYUL [firstname.lastname@example.org]