In early 2005, I had the pleasure of going on a training deployment to the annual Foal Eagle Joint Military Exercises in Korea as the Junior Engineer of my Special Forces detachment. This was my first trip outside the United States for the purposes of the military, so to say I was excited and nervous would be an understatement.
On this trip I learned a great deal, which I suppose is a pretty good summary to life in general: get my ass kicked, learn some interesting things, have some fun, make friends, reflect on lessons learned, philosophize, rinse and repeat.
The following is a firsthand account of the more memorable experiences of a young, wet-behind-the-ears Special Forces NCO on his first trip to the edge of a premiere global hot spot.
After a week of planning at a South Korean air base, we finally boarded some Chinooks with a sister team that was also being infiltrated. When we reached our landing zone, I quickly realized this was the coolest fast rope infiltration of my life. Looking out the window in the pale winter moonlight (with momentary flashes of the red aviation lights), all I could see was a sea of green arms and fingers swaying in the heavy double-rotor wash. Soon, these tall evergreens began scratching against the hull of the bird. Pucker factor increased. Fortunately, this was one of the few times I flew with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and I quickly learned why these guys are so loved. Feeling the pine trees scraping the side of the bird, I immediately added my voice into their chorus of praise.
After sliding down the rope into the darkness, and hitting the cold, snowy ground, the eerie silence grew as our bird flew into the night. I’m sure others can attest, but there is always a slight tremor of fear that creeps down the spine when the beat of rotors fades and you’re left on the hard ground, listening and waiting for your eyes to adjust to everything. Time to increase the suck factor!
I quickly learned a very important fact after we began moving: the terrain in Korea absolutely sucks. I also learned quickly that I never, ever, wanted to fight there. Being a simple Hoosier growing up around corn and soybean fields, my idea of hills was limited to the foothills of the Appalachians, and I drove my happy ass through that. Even Northwest Washington, the home of Mount Rainier (where I was stationed at 1st Special Forces Group) didn’t prepare me for this madness. I’m sure it doesn’t compare to Afghanistan, but ask anyone who has been to Korea about the terrain and the weather. It sucked, dammit.
There we were, a small detachment of 12 men trudging through the snow with around 120lbs in our rucksacks. I could see the contrast of the hilltops we were moving towards in the distant. “Not that bad…” I said to myself. The thing about hilltops I hadn’t considered; when viewed from a distance in the dark, each shadowy bump is actually a 1-5 meter climb along 1-2 meters of ground. For those who are metrically impaired, that’s steep.
At one point in the night, someone’s ruck strap snapped and we all listened quietly as a 120lb ruck filled with batteries, water, food, and other essentials began tumbling down a steep slope. Fortunately it caught a tree branch after falling only 20 feet or so. We managed to grab it and continue on, with straps double-checked. Sometimes laughter is the only thing that works at times like that. On more than one occasion, we were forced to sliding on our asses down icy portions of the ridge lines because the grade was so steep. Only thin trees and a firm grip kept us from sliding into the darkness below. More pucker factor.
At one point, no shit, there must have been a group of wood elves that went before us answering my prayers. Glowing in the moonlight in the climbing ridge line ahead, as if magical, was a long, thick strand of white rope passing from tree to tree. This likely saved us time, if not injury, in passing over a particularly evil hill. I remember laughing to myself and offering a word of prayer for whatever kind soul put a rope at that spot.
I’m pretty sure we moved around 5-6 kilometers through this type of terrain that night to our primary hide site. The mission was a surveillance and reconnaissance of a “mobile missile launch site.” Get some pictures, satellite e-mail pictures up to higher, confirm or deny personnel and security, etc. What it really meant was we humped lots of damn 5590 batteries (5 lb bricks) to power the radios and laptops. I always secretly wondered if our Echos (communication Sergeants) enjoyed torturing us with these.
The best part about this recon mission was also the worst part: the ending. Due to constrictions of the training event, we were only to observe the target for 18 hours, and we left about 12 hours prior to the actual assault on the target by one of the other teams in the company. Ask anyone who knows a shred about reconnaissance, and they would tell you this basically defeats the purpose of our reconnaissance. Whatever. When we received this change of plans from higher, we were all too cold and miserable to care. ‘Let’s get the hell out of here’ was the consensus.
We picked up our rucks and moved out quietly towards our helicopter exfil point. Once we were about 4 kilometers away from the objective, our team sergeant, who was appalled at the absurdity of a 12 hour eyes-on-target reconnaissance and the overall clusterfuck atmosphere of the large training event, essentially issued the command ‘Fuck it’ and ended our tactical portion of the exercise. We just became some guys hiking in the woods.
The fun wasn’t over yet. For some icing on this shit-cake, our helicopter exfil point was moved to a road, and our helicopter magically transformed into a truck. This added nearly 24 hours to our wait. Yay. After another few hours of movement, we picked a nice little draw near a frozen river and holed up for a Rest-Over-Night (RON) site. RONs are great because they require minimal security, which means more sleep for all. This was where our fun began.
What the Hell Is That
Before I get to the fun of the next day, I find it important to mention that there are wild animals in the Korean wilderness. Crazy, I know. I honestly hadn’t considered that any animals would be foolish enough to be wandering around in the frigid cold. Silly me.
As the sun was going behind the ridges, we began to hear what sounded like a troop of baboons hooting in the hillsides surrounding us. At first this was entertaining, until we started noticing there were multiple sources of this sound and they seemed to be encircling us and communicating with each other.
My marginal knowledge of Korea said that there were no baboons in this region, so none of us was positive what the hell was making this racket. All I knew was that they sounded loud, angry, and like they were maneuvering around us. Fortunately, we were armed to the teeth with blank rounds and flashbangs. That would teach them. We did some research when we got back home and figured these were wild boars, which in hindsight were worse than a troop of monkeys. Boars can be mean bastards and tough to kill. Just ask the late King Robert Baratheon.
Fun Times with Weapons
So here we are, 12 strapping men hanging out in rural South Korea, waiting for a big green truck to come pick us up. The morning after the boars, we began to play as hard as we had worked. After filming ourselves skiing down a meter-high frozen waterfall, we began to take bets on whether or not our flashbangs would break through the frozen river. Being the highly trained demolition guy that I was, I vocally argued there was no way it could break through a sheet of ice thick enough for a team of guys to be walking on. I forgot to enter into the equation the variable of the flashbang floating near the surface, and the counterforce of the water forcing the blast upward and shredding the ice with shockwaves. My lost cool points shattered along with the ice.
Being a member of a Special Forces Detachment is the best job in the military. Korea would be a very painful place to fight. Cold sucks. Hills suck. Boars communicate and maneuver. Water always makes explosions more powerful. And finally, there may be wood elves in the hills of South Korea.