Seeing my brother serve as a volunteer chaplain assistant during his military service, I jestingly told my father I should pursue chaplain assistant as my military occupational specialty (MOS) a month prior to mustering in the Republic of Korea Army. The position of chaplain assistant is regarded as one of the most laid-back and physically unchallenging MOS’ and hence desired and applied to by countless Korean male citizens. My father did not believe I sufficiently comprehended the Bible to stand a chance against these competitors. As I approached the replacement depot on June 29, 2010, to begin the new chapter in my life as a soldier, I only had one wish: not to be stationed in one of the front divisions facing North Korea. I remember informing several friends in the United States awaiting my return on the possibility of my serving right behind North Korea, primarily to tease them to think of me. Coincidentally, to my fate, I was drafted into Cheorwon’s 6th Infantry Division, the very front division that includes the demilitarized zone. Arguably the coldest region in South Korea, Cheorwon in winter regularly hit negative twenty-two degrees Fahrenheit (and much lower in units at the top of the mountains), worsened by fierce winds. A drunk officer from this division fell asleep outside and froze to death, which testifies to this brutal cold.
My parents, though optimistic on the phone to add hope, hid their worries about my unanticipated circumstance. I was scared and dearly hanging on to the belief God will never leave me. My division did not consist of translating jobs, but a private assistant’s misinformation made me eager to utilize my unusually exceptional English skills as a nonnative to serve my country. Nevertheless, God had a different plan for me all along. I attended church two to three times a week during boot camp, and being unprecedentedly mentally unstable, discouraged, and intimidated, I cried a river worshipping the Father every service, while most comrades either slept or marched into their own little psychological realm. One day after service, the divisional chaplain asked the trainees if any of them had studied theology, and nobody raised his hand. He then wanted to know if any had lived abroad, and out of the hundreds of initiates, only I put up my hand. He carried on with a series of questions, leading me to reveal I had been living in North America for over half of my life and was enrolled in Emory University, with which he was familiar. He vaguely stated he would use me; little did I know then he was looking for a new regimental chaplain assistant. The 19th Infantry Regiment had recently replaced its Buddhist priest with a chaplain and become a Christian unit; therefore, the regiment desperately required a chaplain assistant. The divisional chaplain office contemplated promoting a volunteer chaplain assistant from the regiment, but the chaplain’s driver, my best Korean friend now, persuaded the chaplain to bring in a new soldier instead. My evident passion for God made the chaplain downright determined to recruit me for this newfound duty until he discovered my prominent politician family background. He said, “If you were a normal kid, I would have chosen you, but you are not, so I will have to pray more to make my decision.” He fretted the public would accuse me of abusing my family status to obtain this popular MOS. This chaplain still had faith in and fought for me in front of the division’s influential officers, including the two-star divisional commander.
A major called my platoon commander during an individual-combat training session to interview me, particularly about my perspective on North Korea. I honestly replied, “I don’t think North Korea as a whole is our enemy,” blaming the country’s regime rather than innocent and wretched civilians. Some officers also surmised I had psychological issues—a criterion unacceptable to becoming a chaplain assistant—because I refused to answer questions like standard Koreans would on psychology tests. The divisional chaplain, however, defended my cultural clash, expressing, “What is so wrong about telling it like it is? Who would like to be forced to serve in the army for two years?” The unit instead sought only “Yes!” and my brutal genuineness had numerous officers question my mental health.
The divisional chaplain ultimately convinced the skeptical officers, and I was welcomed as the regimental chaplain assistant for the 19th Infantry Regiment. He explained to my parents my God-loving face was “glowing” in boot camp and thus he felt the need to recruit me. Usually, to become a chaplain assistant at a regimental level, a candidate has to be attending theology school, take a test, and then be arbitrarily picked as in the lottery, none of which fit me. Statistically, one in two thousand applicants earned my position, and I had not even applied. Placed in a combat regiment, unlike typical chaplain assistants in the country, I participated in physical training, midnight guarding and patrol duties, promotion tests, and practically all activities a combat soldier would as well as fulfilling my assignments at the divisional church. I could have found a way out of these combat roles, but I embraced hardship and even volunteered for the toughest tasks available to create everlasting memories. Working with a despicably disingenuous, imbecile, and childish fraud as my superior seven days a week for fifteen months made the army experience indescribably tougher, as I had to find motivation to refrain from pulverizing him each day. God trained me in ways I would not have tolerated as a civilian; consequently, I am exponentially more disciplined, patient, grateful, and compassionate today.
The original divisional chaplain was replaced with a new chaplain, whose family my close Korean pastor had known for years. Although this family had already been praying for me, neither of us knew about each other initially. The wife claimed she knew someone with my name, and she was referring to me. We could only label God as “humorous.” The family graciously took care of me, and we still keep in touch and pray for one another. Though I at first had nothing but negative outlooks on joining the 6th Infantry Division, I learned God always remains many steps ahead of me in directing me to the path of His Glory.