South Korea rotations give Soldiers deployment, cultural experience
DAGMAR NORTH TRAINING AREA, South Korea -- Not even a year in the Army, Pvt. Sadearious Purce was tasked to drive one of the world's most powerful vehicles in a foreign land.
Behind the controls of an M1 Abrams tank, the 18-year-old tanker and other Soldiers in his 3rd Infantry Division armored unit are learning vital skills within a semi-deployed setting.
In a recent exercise as part of his unit's nine-month training rotation, Purce breached a simulated minefield with the tank's plow, creating a safe passage for other tanks.
"Even if I make a mistake, I learn from that mistake," Purce, of Madisonville, Kentucky, said of the constant drills. "It gives me better driving experience."
As for how the 60-something-ton vehicle handles? "It's like driving a beast," he said, smiling.
Purce's unit -- the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, which had completed a National Training Center rotation in the Californian desert before deploying here -- currently serves as the lead rotational unit assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division.
As the Army's only permanently forward-stationed division, 2nd Infantry Division has turned to rotational units since 2015 to strengthen its mission on the Korean Peninsula.
The rotations supplement its forces with an ongoing supply of well-trained Soldiers fresh out of combat training centers and home station training. It's also an opportunity to train up newer Soldiers, like Purce.
At any given time, there are about 4,000 U.S. Soldiers on a rotational basis that fall under 2nd Infantry Division. While the majority of its ground combat power comes from an armored brigade, the division also receives artillery, aviation and other assets through rotations.
"Every rotational unit that arrives is really at the cutting edge of readiness," said Col. Andrew Morgado, the division's chief of staff. "Once they get on [the peninsula], we continue their training evolution and keep getting them better prepared for what our missions are here."
While talks of peace develop between the U.S. and North Korea, the division continues its work to deter aggression and maintain stability on the peninsula.
"It's a tremendous opportunity just to do basic Soldiering," Morgado said of the mission here. "You never have to really think about why you're here or what your purpose is -- you understand that."
The pace of the training, which is often carried out in austere field conditions, also prepares Soldiers for what they may see one day on a battlefield.
"It's really benefitting them to see what it's like to come to work every single day and have a mission," said Capt. Ryan McCullough, one of the brigade's company commanders.
Being thousands of miles from their home at Fort Stewart, Georgia, has also made 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team Soldiers more focused on those missions.
"There's definitely the distraction of being away from your family, but there is an added benefit on the training side of that," McCullough said. "We know we're here to train and we're here to support and strengthen the alliance."
That alliance is something the brigade's Soldiers see firsthand with the KATUSAS, who are assigned to their tank crews. KATUSAS, short for Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army, are part of the South Korean army who work primarily with U.S. Soldiers.
For Pfc. Thomas Deegan, a 23-year-old loader in a tank crew, interacting with the KATUSAS has been a cultural learning experience. Originally from Chicago, Deegan has never traveled outside the U.S. until this mission.
"You form a bond with them outside of work, which is great," he said. "It only makes you stronger at the end of the day. It also increases the bond we currently have with South Korea."
The brigade's current rotation has also marked a historic return for the 3rd Infantry Division. It is the first time Soldiers with the 3rd Infantry Division patch have served on the peninsula since the division fought there during the Korean War.
In that war, the "Rock of the Marne" division had 13 Medal of Honor recipients, received eight Battle Stars, and were awarded a Presidential Unit Citation by South Korea.
To be able to train near those former war sites where their brethren once fought was not lost on McCullough and his unit.
"It's really amazing to be here and so close to some historic places and battlefields," the captain said. "My Soldiers have had the opportunity to see where some of the biggest battles happened during the Korean War.
"We can add this experience to our unit's heritage," he said.
Now in his third time being stationed in South Korea, Morgado said he has found personal satisfaction in coming back to the peninsula and supporting the Korean people. He hopes all Soldiers in the rotational units will realize their impact on the mission.
"They are an important link in the chain of our alliance," the colonel said. "When their tour is done, whether they are here on a rotational basis or part of the standing forces here, they have made an active and positive contribution to the alliance -- and that is pretty powerful stuff."