More about Young's story can be found in this interview he gave to a Seattle newspaper in 2004 (which didn't go over well when his superiors found out), as well as at his blog, where you can listen to a recent interview given for TBS radio.
The book is well worth reading and can be found at Amazon.com for what should be $2.99 for a Kindle edition (a way to get around a tacked-on $2.00 'international charge' is detailed on his blog). A softcover version is also available and there are currently a handful of copies at the Gwanghwamun branch of Kyobo Bookstore.
I asked Young a few questions about his experience, beginning with the differences between how the ROK and US militaries treat their soldiers:
I think the biggest difference is each army's attitude towards its soldiers. The US Army treats its soldiers as human beings with civil rights to be respected and needs to be fulfilled. At the time, I felt like the Korean Army saw its conscripts as nothing more than tools, no different than a shovel or a toilet. Prior to my induction, I had heard that the pay was atrocious; I hadn't heard that I would be worked almost constantly with very little sleep, sometimes having to skip meals because the officers wouldn't let me take a break from work (even though they made sure to go themselves). There was never a guarantee of free time, and there were no counseling services even though I was depressed and frustrated for most of my first year.While the Korean soldiers in Afghanistan are depicted in the book as getting along well enough with the American soldiers there, some incidents - such as one which ends with an high-ranking American officer storming out after muttering, "God damn Koreans" - made me wonder if the ROK military presence there might have done more harm than good:
When I was in Afghanistan, I was amazed at all the welfare facilities available on base. They had almost everything I could think of and a lot I couldn't have even imagined. On the other hand, on my base in Daegu, the only real welfare facility for conscripts was the PX, which was dwarfed by the one in Afghanistan. The BX on Bagram Air Base was a Wal-mart. The PX on my base in Daegu was a 7-11. At least, that's how it felt. My company in Daegu had a small trailer with some gym equipment and a single basketball hoop. I've heard that other units had a noraebang and a computer for conscripts to use; my company had neither. I couldn't even check my e-mail on base.
In Bagram, I was also amazed by how civilly American soldiers treated each other. In Daegu, it was only ridicule and bullying between soldiers. Aside from your donggi (soldiers who started the same month as you), everyone was someone to be feared or someone to order around. It is the ROK Army culture that forces people to act in such an unnatural way. While on deployment, there was no such protocol in the 2nd Construction Company, and it was much more bearable.
I have heard that the ROK Army has been working on treating conscripts marginally better. I've heard that privates now make something like 130,000 won a month and the general atmosphere among conscripts is better, but I don't know for certain. It's kind of a general understanding that it gets a little better and more comfortable every year, and people who did their service earlier are keen to point out that things were more difficult for them.
To be honest, I don't think the Korean Army's presence in Afghanistan made a difference one way or the other. Sure, we were a nuisance, but most of the truly outrageous things were suffered by those in command--the base command and the command of the 109th Engineers--rather than the average soldier. That being said, I don't think anyone thought we really contributed to the war efforts, and I don't think much was expected of us. The Dasan Engineering Unit poured concrete around the base and the Dongeui Medical Unit treated local nationals, and for the most part, the Korean soldiers kept to the Korean compounds when they weren't busy shopping.I also asked him about the effect his experience had upon his attitude toward Korea in general.
I get asked this question often because people are surprised that I decided to stay in Korea and they usually expect me to be very bitter. Of course, I don't look back at the experience fondly, but the Korean Army is the Korean Army and Korean society is Korean society. There are things that I greatly enjoy about Korea and things that frustrate me to no end, but I don't let my experience in the service color my judgment of Korea.Lastly, I asked him about how he went about learning Korean:
With regard to the people, wherever you go in the world, there are good, kindly, decent people, and there are cruel, selfish, arrogant assholes. The US is no different, Korea is no different, the Korean Army is no different. Granted, the culture in the Army brought out the worst in people, which is one of the reasons why I prefer not to see people I met in the Army. I try to surround myself with the former.
I do deeply sympathize when I hear my friends talking about their experiences in corporate Korea because it often reminds me of my time in the Army, and I've determined never to put myself in such a hellish and poisonous environment again.
For the first three or four weeks, I simply parroted whatever I was taught without knowing what the words meant. Once I got my Korean-English pocket dictionary, I was constantly looking up words that I heard throughout the day and tried to piece things together. When I was a private, I once got verbally abused for looking at my dictionary while I was walking. I had only wanted to look up a word before I forgot it. "Privates don't get to read and walk," the sergeant said, after he had given me a good shoulder to the back.
Once I was in Daegu, I had access to a small library in the squad room. I would choose a novel and go through it, looking up every word I didn't know until I could piece together what was being said. It was very slow-going; I remember spending a couple of days on a single paragraph. The book that I translated for The Korea Times Literature Awards was maybe the first Korean novel I was able to read from cover to cover. I also bought a book on Korean grammar when I was on furlough prior to pre-deployment training. I think I copied most of the entries in my journal. Needless to say, I wrote pages upon pages of vocabulary words and grammar points.
That was one aspect of my learning Korean. The other was the hostile environment. If I said something grammatically incorrect or even mispronounced any little word, I was ridiculed and shamed mercilessly. Some people would respond by working harder until their ability was recognized; I basically just shut my mouth and kept to myself. I never yelled at anyone when I was a sergeant, partially because I knew better than anyone how it felt but mostly because I couldn't yell in Korean. I still can't.
It's a little embarrassing, but I couldn't speak Korean decently until after I got discharged. Everything I had studied didn't get processed until I finally had the time to process it. Needless to say, I don't recommend going to the Korean Army if you're interested in learning Korean.
Thanks to Young for answering my questions.