Less than a year before I reported for duty in South Korea, two 14-year-old school girls who were walking along the road were somehow hit and killed by a US Army bridge-launching vehicle. I say “somehow” because that machine is something which very few people will ever see in their lives. I spent eight years in the Army and never saw one. It is uncommon and such a cumbersome giant that it can do nothing suddenly. To be surprised enough to be struck by it defies explanation, yet it found two children in rural South Korea and left them dead on the side of a quiet highway. Like so many of history’s dangers, they must have heard and seen it coming for so long that they had time to stop being afraid of it. By the time it was upon them it was too late to get out of the way.
That it was an accident should not even need to be said. But with all the politics and the jarring connotations of a foreign military being responsible for the death of local children, it was not just an accident. When the ensuing legal process ended in the worst possible way – with a verdict of not guilty – it strained relations between the US and South Korea until they were at the worst point they had been in years. Still, remarkably, and perhaps because enough time had gone by, the ongoing protests I saw as I passed through Seoul were rather perfunctory and tame. I did not feel unwelcome there. If nothing else, I wanted to get out of the other side of that year feeling the same way.
When I arrived with a few other soldiers at my unit in the southern half of the country, we were given briefings about being good visitors, good guests in a foreign place. We were handed booklets that introduced us to Korean customs that we might find odd or unsettling – proper ways to say thank you, different meal habits, and the fact that Korean men would often act in ways that an American would find decidedly feminine. But the death of the school girls was still fresh enough that we were reminded of it as much as anything else. It was an event that was still a functioning part of our relationship with our hosts, and the sort of thing that could sneak up on you with startling consequences if you stopped paying attention.
I heard the warnings and scoffed at the booklets, partly because I was still young enough to believe I didn’t need to be told anything, and partly because I recall the booklets having a distinct presumption of American cultural immaturity – a dull cliché that has always made me bristle. It was also pretty clear that most of the people stationed at that post wouldn’t really need any of this information, because they wouldn’t have much contact with Korean culture, insulated as they were by the sheer concentration of American service members in the area. The post was home to about 25,000 US soldiers, airmen, and marines, so while it was in South Korea, it was foreign in geography only. But the warnings, the booklets, and the customs would become more important for me if I was to get the position I wanted – to take charge of one of the three remote detachments near the North Korean border.
Unfortunately, that position had already been taken by Staff Sergeant Lamb, who arrived a few weeks before I did. I had served with Sgt. Lamb at my last duty assignment and knew him to be genuinely unreliable and irresponsible. I could lie and say that I had the Army’s best interests in mind when I mentioned his shortcomings to my new platoon sergeant and platoon leader, but really, I only did it because I knew that I was the most likely choice to replace him. It didn’t take much. When I met with Sgt. Arnold and Lt. Kwan for introductions on the first day, I said “I heard you put Sgt. Lamb on the Det.”
LT. Kwan was short and thick, and two or three years younger than I was. Fresh out of college, he looked studious and clean in wire-rimmed glasses. He opened a drawer and removed a folder. I could see Lamb’s name on it. With just a shadow of an accent he asked, “You know him?”
“Yes, sir. I do.”
He looked at Sgt. Arnold – an over-starched uniform and a mustache too neat to trust – and then looked back to me. “You like him?”
I could see by the folder and by the way he asked, that they already had their doubts, so I dove in. “He’s late for everything. Used to fall asleep in class all the time.”
It was a low move on my part, some petty brinkmanship that I could not always have gotten away with in the Army. We have all manner of creeds and codes and unwritten rules, and one of the most commonly held is the one that says you do not undermine your fellow soldiers. When I was in a combat unit, where trust is sometimes more important than honesty, this rule was among the highest of all commandments. Discrediting a fellow noncommissioned officer for my own interests probably would have been the best way to guarantee that I did not get the job. But in this military intelligence unit, more corporate than combative, it was the best way forward.
And it worked. They pulled Sgt. Lamb back to headquarters, and I was flown to my stolen detachment by helicopter. I don’t remember how long the flight was. The Blackhawk wound low with its doors open, through heavy green valleys and over countless rice paddies and I would have been happy if we flew around up there forever. When we finally came up between two tree-covered ridges and touched down on the helipad – my helipad – we were about a 60-mile drive from the nearest US Army Garrison, nestled atop a mountain that overlooked the Yellow Sea to the West, and just a handful of miles from the river that separated us from North Korea.
Somewhere on that river and extending out into the sea, an invisible line had been drawn. You could see it clearly enough on a map, and no matter which side you were on, the bad guys were on the other. Sometimes a North Korean ship drifted too far South, always accidentally of course, and we would know because fighters from the nearby airbase would fly past us and towards whomever made the mistake. Often it was just a wayward fishing boat, but borders are borders and must be observed, even when you can’t see them.
About halfway down the winding road that accessed the mountain was a barracks and a few related buildings that housed a Republic of Korea Marine unit. We knew them as the ROK Marines, a small defense force ostensibly in place to protect us and that corner of the country from a dubious, yet oft-invoked, North Korean threat. I can only guess at a count, but between them and a handful of Korean intelligence soldiers, there were probably a couple hundred or so native military personnel on the mountain in total. There were only four Americans – myself, Private First-Class Judge, and Privates Reyes and Priest.
Along with the people, there were dogs seemingly everywhere up there. This was common all over Korea, and it was part of the reason you couldn’t eat a piece of meat in that country without someone half-joking that it was probably gaegogi, or dog. The Marines down the road had several of them, most of which were of a good-sized breed called Jindo, strong dogs that stood very upright and vaguely resembled a husky with neat white or reddish-brown fur. In that military environment they looked purposeful and not much like pets, so even though I was not given any reason to fear them, I never approached them. They belonged to the Marines, existing on the other side of the line between us and them.
That line, unlike the border with the north, was blurry and even harder to see. It was not drawn on any maps and it did not stay in one place. It was a line with no enemies on either side, but the same mandate that it be observed, lest there be consequences. Up there on that mountain, the line moved when we did, and we simply had to be careful not to move so quickly that we got ahead of it.
Which is not to say that there was any tension between us and the South Koreans. Indeed, we got along very well, joining them for small cookouts on the weekends and playing soccer with them on the large dirt field in front of their barracks. Many nights they would take two or even three of us – someone always had to remain on duty – into the town at the base of the mountain, where we would take off our shoes and be treated to a real Korean meal. Whoever was eldest at the table would pour us the first of the soju (or did the eldest get served first? I still can’t remember), and we would eat and drink and hear stories of the American soldiers who preceded us on the mountain in years past. They were accustomed to being generous hosts, and we did our part to be gracious guests.
Still, we had certain manners to observe and practice. And though we were far away from the crowding and politics of Seoul, someone always seemed to find an occasion to remind us of the girls we killed out in the country. Not as any kind of a warning or an accusation, but simply because it was still part of the fabric of their experiences, and so it would work its way into conversations without much intent. Also, arriving when I did, the one-year anniversary of the incident would have been approaching. I remember being relieved that we were out there on that island. Not only was it far from the site of the accident, but it was also far from the capital, where the bulk of the demonstrations would be concentrated, and the Americans were sure to be a little less comfortable than usual. On the island we were blameless, all of the Koreans were our friends, and the only thing that didn’t smile was the dogs.
We had a dog of our own, the mascot of the detachment. He had official orders assigning him to the post, just like a human soldier, signed by a Major or a Lieutenant Colonel. He was just a little mutt of fifteen pounds or so, scruffy and permanently dirty, probably born on the street and rescued by chance by a shopkeeper on her way home, as was often the case. His name was Frodo, given to him twelve years ago by whatever Americans were serving the mountain at the time he was brought there.
Frodo was old and ragged but still had a lot of energy, and I thought I would bond a little with my soldiers and the Korean Marines and the mountain in general by taking him on a short run down the road. A little PR tour where I could smile and wave at the local troops, showing my goodwill and fitness for the job. Frodo would serve as my liaison, a symbol of my right to be there and my willingness to get along. Private Priest and PFC Judge agreed to go with me, and the four of us went through our gate. We nodded at the skinny guard in his faded and tired-looking uniform and started jogging downhill.
I wasn’t thinking about much, other than what a beautiful day it was. It was May or June, and the early Summer view of the Yellow Sea made me pious and exultant. The road wound steeply downward. My troops were in good spirits. Frodo skittered back and forth across the road on his short legs, as happy as the rest of us to be free and moving. I felt perfect about the impression we were making on our hosts.
Whether my giddiness caused me to miss a warning sign I cannot say. There should probably have been terrible barks and growls from the brush at the side of the road, and I should have heard it coming in time to stop it. But I do not remember any of that. What I do remember is Frodo, being ripped at by the jaws of one of the ROK Marines’ stout dogs. I had brought him across some invisible line known only to the animals, drawn in scent and instinct, and the Jindo had raked him from the road and into its mouth. It heeded none of the shouts that I didn’t hear, but must have been coming from its Marine handlers. I wondered later whether the Korean dog would have understood me if I screamed at it in English.
Surely nobody could have stopped it – once the dogs got going, so the only truly useful thing to do would have been to never go out in the first place. That’s what Sgt. Lamb would have done. He would have stayed inside, sleeping every chance he got, and thinking nothing of his duty outside of those gates. He would have avoided the Koreans as much as possible, and he would not have gone running. None of this would have happened, Frodo would not have been killed, and I wouldn’t have been so confused about how something that really wasn’t my fault could feel so much like it was. But of course Sgt. Lamb wasn’t up there. I was, because I sat there in Lt. Kwan’s office and told the truth when honor should have made me lie.
None of that mattered in the least anymore. What mattered was whatever I did next, and I had no idea what that would be. The Koreans and PFC Judge were looking at me, Priest was looking at Frodo, and Frodo was looking down the road, in the direction his head fell when the dog dropped him there. I wasn’t looking at anything, because there was far too much to see. A voice inside me said do something. Now. But we had no vehicle nearby, and cell phones were not so ubiquitous at the time, so all I could do was nearly kill myself sprinting up that mountain to do something useful, even though there was nothing left to be done. When I try to think about it, my memory always rushes out somewhere in the strained breaths on that winding road up to our building, and I realize that I wasn’t running to get something done. I was running to get the hell away from there. I knew I could not stand there and look at Frodo anymore, so the one thing I managed to do in that crisis was to look like I was advancing, while actually running away.
Ultimately, I don’t remember anything else that happened after his death, after that dog raged out of the woods and tore into him right in front of me. I only remember Frodo being scooped and shaken, the fact that it was over almost immediately, and most clearly, I remember that the six of us who witnessed it were completely frozen in our places. I stood there with Priest and Judge on one side of the carnage, those three Marines on the other, and every one of us just hung there until the big dogs dropped little Frodo’s limp body into the gravel on the side of the road. I don’t think there was even any blood.
Of his body or who took care of it or where he ended up I have no idea. Knowing the Army as I do, I have to believe that the event would have generated a small pile of paperwork, a meeting or two to formalize the blame and be forgiven by someone with no right to do it, and finally a grim, silent drive into the maddening traffic of Seoul with Frodo wrapped in a towel. The Army put him out there, and the Army would want him back. But if any of that happened, I don’t know it.
And I don’t want to know, because it gives me a chance to hope that something much better happened for him. Something less administrative and cold. Something that anchored him to his home and didn’t put his fate in the hands of strangers anymore. It gives me a chance to hope that while I was running back up the mountain to do nothing of any use, the ROK Marines gathered him up gently from the road and carried him behind their gates. And that later, with their dogs watching or not, they gave him a quiet and reverent burial somewhere on his mountain.
I hope for these things because otherwise it would be too easy to say that Frodo was just a dog, and that to accidentally kill a dog does not deserve to be spoken of the way that accidentally killing a human is. But he was not just a dog, any more than it was just an accident when an American vehicle ran over two Korean school girls on another beautiful summer day the June before. They were not alone on that road, and we were not alone on that mountain, or that island, or that country, and it’s never just anything when you are not alone. In this case it was a dog and the other five sets of eyes on the road, and the ears and opinions of everyone who would hear about it, and most importantly of everyone – American and Korean – whose lives belonged to that mountain. It was all of that and all of us and those two girls who are still dying on that road out in the countryside, forever being snuck up on by something as loud and slow and huge as history.