His spit turned to ice in freezing winters. Sweat dripped down the side of his face during the sweltering hot summers. While his friends were enjoying the comforts of D.C., senior Joo Yeol Lim was forced to stand rigid every day for two years, playing the alto saxophone in the South Korean military band.
Every year, some of the more than 250 international students from South Korea put their GW careers on hold to answer their homeland’s call of duty, serving in the military for the required two-year period.
Though offered the option of enlisting after graduation, Lim said he found it easier to take a break from his studies and complete his service requirement.
“It’s a step every Korean has to take,” Lim said. “I thought it would be better to go earlier than later.”
Lim left GW after completing his sophomore year and arrived in South Korea in Sept. 2008, where he was stationed as a member of the military band – a post that was more mentally strenuous than physically taxing, he said.
“Within the military base it’s more strict because we don’t have that much training. We had military ceremonies once or three times a day and we’d go out there and play instruments,” Lim said.
He returned to the U.S. after sustaining a herniated-disc injury in his back eight months into his term.
Junior Jae Hoon Jung also took a hiatus from his studies in order to drive tanks and serve as an English translator for visiting U.S. army generals in the South Korean military.
Jung chose to enlist at the end of his freshman year and spent a large portion of his first year at a Korean army training school.
Though Jung left South Korea for the United States when he was 14 years old, he said he still felt like he was a true Korean – speaking and understanding the language fully – until he enlisted in the military and met other South Koreans.
“I thought I was a perfect Korean, but when I first got there and met all the people my age, it was culture shock,” Jung said. “I got to learn about my country and Korean culture.”
Both Lim and Jung said most South Koreans who attend school in the U.S. are given more favorable positions in the military, and are less frequently at the border between North and South Korea because they can speak English fluently. They said, however, that every position in the South Korean military has unique hardships.
“Every Korean that serves in the military will say that their position was the hardest ever. They all have their own stories,” Lim said. “My friend who served on the border would go up to the mountains every week and trace the routes to lead crews if North Korea attacked.”
At least once a month, all military members undergo trainings to learn how to speak and walk according to military rules. Shooting and bomb trainings were also held.
Jung said entering the military made him more aware of the issues South Koreans face on a daily basis.
“There has been peace for 60 years now, but when you go to the army, you see that war can break out at any time,” Jung said.
Returning to GW has been a relief, but readjusting to student life was no easy feat for the two men. Many of Lim’s friends have already graduated and it has taken time to revive remaining friendships.
Still, Lim and Jung said their time in service offered a chance to think about what they will do in the future once they grow into adulthood.
“You get to appreciate more things you have taken for granted,” Jung said. “I think [military service] really shapes you. You have to go, so why not enjoy it?” u