KATUSA soldier illustrates Korea-US alliance
CAMP WARRIOR, South Korea -- Private First Class Min Seob Lee said as a young boy growing up just outside of Seoul, he never really understood why there were American servicemen and women in his country.
But after he was selected by the Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army (KATUSA), program Lee said his attitude quickly changed.
"I wasn't clear about what the U.S. Army does here," Lee said. "But now I really see the commitment and dedication of the U.S. Army and its Soldiers. I understand now that they are here to protect and defend Korea. I can see the values of the American Soldier firsthand."
Lee is attached to the Eighth Army's Public Affairs Office where his official job title is administrative assistant. But his duties also include driving and whatever else he can do to assist in the day-to-day operation of the public affairs shop.
Lee's English-language skills, honed while living in Europe with his family, as well as while studying at the University of California-Berkley, have made him a valuable part of Eighth Army Public Affairs.
"I do a lot of translating, as well as helping Soldiers understand the Korean culture," he said. "I like working with the U.S. Army and assisting in its mission to defend freedom in Korea."
"KATUSA soldiers like Lee really make our operations run a lot smoother," said Staff Sgt. Josephine Ampley of Eighth Army Public Affairs. "Their language skills and overall contributions are a definite credit to the (Republic of Korea) army, as well as being invaluable to the U.S. Army and our mission here."
The KATUSA program began in July 1950 during the Korean War. Originally intended to match able-bodied Korean personnel with available U.S. equipment, the program has evolved into a cultural exchange and a symbol of friendship between the two nations.
Most Korean men serve their 21 months of mandatory military service as ROK Army soldiers, while others serve in the ROK Navy, Marines or Air Force.
A select few are chosen to augment the U.S. Army through the KATUSA program. These select individuals are conscripted citizens who, by obligation, put their lives on hold to serve their country and serve alongside U.S. soldiers.
Lee said he wanted to be a KATUSA after becoming immersed in American culture during his time as a college student in California.
"Having studied in America, I felt the KATUSA program was for me," Lee said. "So I applied for it when it was time for me to complete my mandatory service with the ROK army."
Becoming a KATUSA requires taking, and passing, a standardized English test and a lot of luck. Applicants are first selected through a lottery. Once selected, KATUSA trainees complete six weeks of ROK army basic training at Nonsan Training Academy and an additional three weeks at the KATUSA Training Academy.
"Being chosen in the lottery was pure luck," Lee admited. "But I am glad it worked out the way it did. This has been an invaluable experience for me."
After completing his 21 months of mandatory military service, Lee said he plans to return to the United States to pursue a law degree.
"Working with the U.S. Army has opened a lot of doors for me and (has) given me the discipline needed to be successful," he said. "I am proud to call myself a KATUSA."
Maj. Isaac Taylor, Eighth Army Public Affairs, said the KATUSA program's significance goes beyond the daily contributions made by soldiers such as Lee.
"It illustrates how really strong the ROK-U.S. alliance is," Taylor says. "It's also amazing that they allow us to have not just any of their young men, but some of their highly-educated future leaders who have goals that will reach far beyond the military and into all aspects of their society."