Welcome To Korea: 4,000 U.S. Troops Arrive At A Tense Time | KERA News

Welcome To Korea: 4,000 U.S. Troops Arrive At A Tense Time

Feb 26, 2016
Originally published on February 26, 2016 9:32 pm

About 4,000 soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas, have landed in South Korea in the past few weeks, to serve along the border of the two Koreas. As policy makers contend with the thorny security challenges of the region, soldiers are adjusting to more day-to-day challenges.

Fresh off the planes from central Texas, the men and women of the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team say it's the snow that made the most noticeable first impression.

"We left Fort Hood at about 60 degrees, 70 degrees. And we got here to about 10 or 15 degrees, which apparently is standard for here," said Spc. Delaney Burks. She's wearing some of her army-issued cold weather gear for the first time. "You're issued actually an eight-layer system in case it gets super-cold," she says.

What was once considered a peacekeeping stint, in which a few hundred soldiers rotated in and out each month as their tours came up, has now changed. Last June, for the first time ever, an entire combat-ready brigade of 4,000 deployed to South Korea as one unit.

This is the same way troops were sent to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It's definitely a readiness issue," says Col. Scott Sonsalla, the deputy commander here. He said the decision to deploy to Korea in this manner came from higher levels, but the execution is seen in the preparations for next month's war games with the South Korean army, and how the American troops were trained.

"The first thing they did when they came off the plane was they grabbed their bags and repacked them to a combat load," Sonsalla says. "You see it once, twice a year, where there is some sort of friction between the North and South. If you look at the motto that we've always had here, it's 'fight tonight.'"

Talk to the soldiers expected to pick up and "fight tonight," and they seem more preoccupied with the frigid temperatures than with the regime of Kim Jong Un.

"We're doing a lot of cold-weather training, just making sure people are prepared for the cold-weather injuries," says Spc. Jordan Tauber, a medic who arrived about three weeks ago.

The frigid temperatures haven't stopped regular move-in routines like "layouts," army-speak for taking inventory.

"We're laying out some of our rope climbing kits, our explosive blankets to help cover you during a blast, things like that," says Staff Sgt. Brad Sheets. He is among those moving in, replacing the 4,000 heading home.

There are also cultural adjustments. The Army dining hall where we found Tauber is the same as it would be anywhere else in the world — with one key exception.

"They do have a kimchi bar here, and some seaweed with some rice and things like that to add to your meal," Tauber says.

On top of the cold, troops are getting used to Korea's spicy, fermented favorite dish.

"It's cool seeing a lot of my battle buddies try new foods, especially kimchi, because it freaks them all out," says Tauber.

What can scare an American soldier stationed in Korea isn't always the most obvious thing.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In South Korea, about 4,000 American soldiers have just arrived from Fort Hood, Texas. They're landing at a tense time between the North and South, but as NPR's Elise Hu reports, what soldiers say they have the toughest time adjusting to is not the threat from the North.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: They are fresh off the planes from Central Texas, and suddenly, the soldiers of the U.S. Army's 1st Calvary Division find themselves training in the snow.

SPECIALIST DELANEY BURKS: We left Fort Hood, I think, at about 60 degrees, 70 degrees, which is pretty standard for that time, and we got here to about, you know, 10 or 15 degrees, which apparently is standard for here.

HU: Spc. Delaney Burks is wearing some of her army-issued cold-weather gear for the first time. The soldiers get more than just an extra jacket.

BURKS: You're issued, actually, an eight-layer system in case you get super cold.

HU: The subzero temperatures haven't stopped regular move-in routine like layouts, which is army speak for taking inventory.

STAFF SGT BRAD SHEETS: This is the initial inventory as the transition is happening.

HU: Staff Sgt. Brad Sheets is among the thousands of soldiers transitioning in as another 4,000 head home.

SHEETS: We're laying out some of our rope climbing kits, our explosive blankets to help cover you during a blast - things like that.

HU: Preparing for possible blasts is something the newly arrived brigade takes seriously given North Korea's recent nuclear test and rocket launch. Col. Scott Sonsalla is deputy commander here.

COLONEL SCOTT SONSALLA: The first thing they did when they came off the plane is they grabbed their bags, and they repacked them to a combat load.

HU: What was once considered a peacekeeping stint in which a few hundred soldiers rotated in and out each month as their tours came up has changed - now an entire combat-ready brigade of 4,000 deployed to South Korea as one unit. This is the same way troops were sent into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

SONSALLA: It's definitely a readiness issue.

HU: Col. Sonsalla.

SONSALLA: You see it once, twice a year where there is some sort of friction between the North and South. If you look at the motto that we've always had here, it's fight tonight.

HU: But talk to the troops who are trained to pick up and, quote, "fight tonight," and they seem to talk a lot more about the cold than they do the Kim regime.

SPECIALIST JORDAN TAUBER: It's very cold, very cold here.

HU: Spc. Jordan Tauber is a medic who arrived about three weeks ago.

TAUBER: We're doing a lot of, you know, cold-weather training just make sure people are prepared for the cold-weather injuries.

HU: It may be a particularly fraught time at the high-ranking policy setting levels, but on the ground, day-to-day life remains routine.

TAUBER: Yeah, I mean, yeah, so we've been set to come here for a while now. So no, nothing changed. You know, my family called me. I let them know I was going to do my job.

HU: The job equips them with sniffing gadgets for bombs at the border, and they're trained for events like a radiation leakage or worse. But for now, the biggest adjustments are cultural. The army dining hall where we found medic Tauber is the same as it would be anywhere else in the world with a key exception.

TAUBER: They do have a kimchi bar here and some seaweed over there with rice and things like that to add to your meal.

HU: On top of the cold, they have to get used to the spicy, fermented favorite of Korea.

TAUBER: It's cool seeing a lot of my battle buddies trying new foods, especially kimchi because it freaks them all out.

HU: What can scare a soldier stationed in Korea isn't always the most obvious thing. Elise Hu, NPR News, Dongducheon, South Korea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.