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Dangerous and Unpredictable

By Richard K. Kolb

Reprinted from the October 1989 issue of VFW Magazine
With permission

"IT is a landscape of nightmare, this wasteland of a demilitarized zone: artillery craters, barbed wire, minefields, graveyards, the skeletons of villages and the remains of rice paddies. The earth has been shelled, mined, overgrown, booby-trapped, burned and abandoned to grow wild yet another time," wrote William Holinger of Korea’s DMZ in The Fence-Walker.

Until the recent debate over withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea, few Americans paid much attention to GIs serving near this reminder of a war never fully settled.

Nor has tangible recognition been granted for the inherent risks taken along one of the most dangerous fronts between Communism and the free world.

So it is not surprising that the American people do not fully comprehend the demanding service rendered in this harsh land.

"I am surprised and upset with the lack of media coverage on soldiers serving here," wrote Pfc. Mark Whitt of B Co., 2nd Battalion/503rd Infantry, 2d Infantry Division. "Heck, I live three miles from a Communist border in a tent with 13 other people and regularly patrol the DMZ separating North and South Korea."

A world away back in the U.S., this same dismay is shared by veterans who served in Korea between July 29, 1954 and Sept. 30, 1966. "For years we have been fighting for Congress or the Defense Department to allow the United Nations Ribbon or the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (AFEM) for military personnel who did a stint in Korea during the time that is not officially recognized," says Francis J. Burskey.

A member of the Korean Service Veterans in Pennsylvania, Burskey served along the DMZ in 1963-64 when several GIs were killed in action by North Koreans.

Both Burksey and Whitt are understandably disappointed. By all accounts, Korea’s DMZ is about as close to a combat zone as there is in the world today for American ground units.

But because the shooting has stopped for now, veterans of the "Z," as it is known in GI jargon, do not qualify for a campaign medal.

The exception to that rule applies to the period between October 1966 and June 1974 when the AFEM was authorized. Yet even during this time, full-fledged firefights regularly occurred only from November 1966 through 1969.

The AFEM was first granted retroactively for service in the 1958 Lebanon intervention. Since then, it’s been authorized for 17 other military actions involving varying degrees of danger, most recently for Persian Gulf naval service.

Apparently, there is substantial support for admitting all Korea DMZ vets to the VFW. Says VFW Commander-in-Chief Wally Hogan, a Korean War veteran, "A half dozen resolutions were introduced in 1989 and their message is clear: until a peace treaty is signed, anyone assigned to the DMZ for 30 or more consecutive days should be awarded the AFEM."

VFW Resolution No. 209, a combination of the six Korea-related resolutions introduced this year, urges Congress or the Defense Department to authorize the AFEM for all qualified personnel.

In the Jaws of a Dragon

A flashpoint of the Cold War, Korea is the sole place in East Asia where the critical interests of all the major Pacific powers converge. A Communist-controlled peninsula would be a "dagger aimed at the heart of Japan."

GIs in Korea are on a higher state of alert than any other U.S. troops on the globe, serving as a virtual tripwire between two of the world’s largest opposing armies. Within 50 miles of the 38th parallel, North Korea has 480,000 troops facing 360,000 South Koreans.

Every American and South Korean soldier patrolling between the DMZ’s Southern Barrier Fence and the Military Demarcation Line watches for tell-tale signs of North Korean infiltration, such as footprints in the neatly-raked sand along the fence, broken tree branches, breaks in the fence, booby-traps along the trails, etc. They remain alert and ready to respond to any North Korean provocation, which occurs frequently and without warning.

Some 60% of the North’s total combat strength, including the elite Special Operations Forces—the largest such element in the world—are forward-deployed. It serves as the vanguard for cross-border attack as well as behind-the-lines warfare and sabotage missions.

The DMZ has been described as "a barren collar stretched around the neck of a dragon to keep its two heads from biting each other." Soldiers charged with keeping that dragon at bay are in an unenviable position.

Said Col. John Patrick, commander of the 400-man United Nations Security Force at Camp Bonifas in 1988, "It is a continuing cold war of intimidation with the North Koreans." Added Lt. Jeff Helmick, "This is one of two places in the world where you have direct contact with the enemy (Berlin being the other)."

(Incidentally, a stint in Berlin, by a quirk of political history, still qualifies military personnel for an Army of Occupation Medal and thus membership in the Veterans of Foreign Wars.)

Clashes with the enemy in Korea are always possible. In late 1984, for example, a defecting Soviet student provoked a lethal exchange of gunfire. North Koreans shot at the student as he fled across the border, prompting return fire from South Korean soldiers.

In the brief firefight, two North Koreans and one South Korean were killed. And Pvt. Michael A. Burgoyne of Portland, Michigan, was shot in the jaw. He was later awarded the Purple Heart.

Deterring the Enemy

North Korea remains committed to destabilizing the economically powerful South. Infiltration, sabotage, espionage, terrorism, sea raids, airspace violations and other provocative acts characterize the Communist regime’s campaign against Seoul.

Enough of a threat obviously exists along the DMZ to warrant active deterrence. This is where the 8th Army comes into play. It makes up over 70% of the 44,135 U.S. troops stationed in Korea. Most remaining personnel belong to the U.S. Air Force.

Based "In Front of Them All" is the 8th Army’s Joint Security Force Company (JSFC) which guards the buildings at Panmunjom and serves as a Quick Reaction Force. JSFC is on call 24 hours a day.

This combined U.S.-Korean unit has sustained 10 killed in action (KIA) and 40 wounded in action (WIA) since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

Right behind JSFC is the 2nd Infantry Division, the most forward-deployed division in the U.S. Army.

The Indianhead Division, as it is nicknamed, was reorganized in 1987 and today has four combat maneuver brigades—infantry, armor, mechanized infantry and aviation.

The brigades consist of eight battalions—three light and two mechanized infantry, two tank and one air cavalry squadron. Four artillery battalions provide fire support.

All told, approximately half of the division’s 15,000 members are committed to a combat role. The division is brought to authorized strength by attachment of over 2,200 KATUSAs (Korean Augmentees to the U.S. Army).

Division elements are positioned astride the principal invasion corridors leading to Seoul, and are responsible for an 18.5-mile-sector of the 151-mile DMZ.

Two American guard posts, Collier and Ouelette, lie within the DMZ and are manned by infantry platoons. Permanently based at Camp Greaves and Liberty Bell north of the Imjin River is the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry of the 3rd Brigade.

From late winter to late fall, other infantry battalions are rotated to the operational area. Missions include manning the two DMZ posts, patrolling the sector contiguous to the truce village of Panmunjom and providing joint road and bridge security.

During his one-year tour in Korea, every grunt will spend time in the "Z" where he is likely to see, hear or otherwise encounter North Koreans. Patrols are geared to interdict intruders. "We go on live patrols with live ammunition," said Capt. Jorge Rangel. "This is the real enemy. We have to be ready."

DMZ patrolmen "collect intelligence, provide early warning, and kill the enemy if he comes through. Reconnaissance and ambush patrols are conducted every day and every night. It’s deadly serious business," according to one officer.

Yet there are restrictions. American troops must first attempt to detain infiltrators. Only if fired upon may they shoot the enemy.

Armed infiltrators, in fact, have been encountered in the American sector in recent years. In the "Z", locking and loading an M-16 is clearly more than a training exercise.

Closeness to North Korean forces makes such tasks on the DMZ meaningful. Tough training, tedium and tension all seem worthwhile when the threat is clearly visible.

This sense of purpose explains the high morale and esprit de corps in the Indianhead Division. Little wonder that military sociologist Charles Moskos called the DMZ "the last best place to soldier."

Twilight War

Americans have been soldiering in Korea since the end of WWII. In addition to the war there in 1950-53, infantrymen along the DMZ engaged in what one author called a "Twilight War."

Even earlier in mid-1963, three Americans were killed in several days of skirmishing. Two were ambushed in a jeep; the other was KIA while rounding up the North Korean infiltrators responsible for the attack. All the North Koreans were tracked down and killed.

Three years later, while President Lyndon Johnson was visiting Korea in 1966, a new round of sustained fighting erupted. "Because of duty, six of them died…from Communist gunfire on the almost forgotten front of the 38th parallel in Korea," Johnson said of the first Americans killed in the renewed combat.

Lethal skirmishes continued throughout 1967, and later, as the Tet Offensive raged in Vietnam, North Korea unleashed its "hunter-killer" teams on the DMZ. U.S. reinforcements, including a Special Forces A-Detachment, were sent there to counter the Communists.

Only then did the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommend—and the Defense Department approve—the area north of the Imjin River and just south of the DMZ as a hostile fire zone—effective April 1, 1968. The coveted Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Purple Heart and decorations for valor in battle were subsequently authorized.

Over 40 GIs were killed and 131 wounded in lonely ambushes and firefights along the 38th parallel in the late 1960s. American lives were also lost at sea and in the air. One sailor died in the 1968 Pueblo affair when the ship’s entire crew was captured and held for over a year.

In April 1969, 31 airmen were killed when the North Koreans shot down a U.S. reconnaissance plane over the Sea of Japan. Another six GIs died in three separate incidents between 1975 and 1977.

Though open hostilities had ceased by the end of 1969, combat pay and combat awards were not withdrawn until 1973. The Defense Department awarded the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal for service in Korea until June 30, 1974.

Quest for Recognition

"VFW has an obvious stake in whether present-day Korea vets are awarded the AFEM," says Commander-in-Chief Hogan. "In the past 15 years alone, a substantial potential pool of DMZ veterans would have been eligible for membership if the campaign medal had been authorized.

"But more importantly, Americans who man remote outposts on the frontiers of freedom deserve something extra. A relatively small number of GIs on active duty are asked to perform this task and they rate some token of special recognition."

Korea’s no-man’s land is quiet for now. Still, duty in the DMZ is performed as it would be in a combat zone. Nowhere else on America’s far-flung defense perimeter is a GI as likely to encounter hostile fire.

In recognition of this reality, many veterans of the 1954-66 era and the post-1974 period feel award of the AFEM is justified. So does the VFW.

Former President Ronald Reagan—the first U.S. commander-in-chief to ever visit the DMZ—perhaps made the best case for the medal in 1984 when he said, "We know about the danger. You’re facing a heavily armed, unpredictable enemy with no regard for human life."


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