The husky staff sergeant lost both legs when a mine-exploded during the bloody battles of Tet 1968 in Vietnam. He was rushed to a U.S. Army hospital in the Philippines, then was flown home to an uncertain future.
But instead of indifference to his bad luck in an unpopular war, the sergeant found as he recuperated that he was swamped with visits from admiring family, friends and official dignitaries from his hometown and elsewhere. He was given a lifetime stipend above the average salary of an urban worker, promised free college tuition for his children, presented a three-bedroom house free of charge and set up with government encouragement in a job as organizer and financial officer of a new medical goods factory.
It is not an American story. It is the story of Choi Woe Hoiung, one of 312,853 South Koreans who went to Vietnam and returned home to a reception that would have astonished their Yankee counterparts.
Choi's nation had had first-hand experience with an enemy invasion. "People realized the importance of military service in Vietnam and so they welcomed us wholeheartedly when we came back," said Choi, a wheelchair-bound man with massive arms and shoulders and a belt buckle denoting his younger days as a judo expert.
Jung Won Kyo was a supply unit corporal near Saigon during the latter part of the war when Americans had turned overwhelmingly against Vietnam involvement. He remembers the reception for this returning troop ship when it docked in Pusan in February 1972.
"There were tens of thousands of people lined up there to give us flowers and bouquets. There were bands playing and a big welcoming ceremony."
South Korean officials say the country's Vietnam forces suffered 4,959 killed and 8,396 wounded from 1964 to 1972, only about one-tenth of the American casualties but still substantial in terms of its 37 million population. Wounded veterans were guaranteed a government blue collar job if they wanted one and received 10 extra percentage points on the civil service exam for a white collar government post.
The South Korean veterans administration also found them private industry jobs. Companies were required by law to set some positions aside for wounded veterans. There are still several government training programs for wounded veterans who want to improve their skills. About 24 villages for wounded vets have been set up throughout the country with huge government grants. Choi helped to organize one of them.
The veterans administration also assumed responsibility for finding jobs for widows of soldiers killed in action and paid them a monthly stipend of $25 to $110. Tuition in high school and college for their children, as well as the children of severely disabled soldiers like Choi, is free.
For several years after the devastating Korean War of 1950-1953, Seoul could not afford such lavish treatment of its disabled veterans. Many begged in the streets, wearing rags. But in the early 1960s the military-oriented government of Park Chung Hee began a series of reforms that emphasized the importance of morale for Korean forces in future wars. "We don't know when North Korea will invade the South again," Korean veterans administration planning and management director Hur Gill said. "We need a spiritual commitment with the people and by giving good treatment to wounded veterans we are trying to give the impression that those who serve the nation will be treated well."
Korean veterans of Vietnam who were not wounded and did not have at least 10 years' service in the army did not receive any financial benefits. But the parades and ceremonies on their return kept their morale high. Industry recruiters swarmed over the lists of discharged troops looking for people to hire for Korea's mushrooming industries. Then, as now, every Korean male, with few exceptions, has to serve at least 32 months in the armed forces, and military services does not have the taint it did in the United States during the war.
"Most enlisted men like me who went to Vietnam volunteered," said Jung Won Kyo, the former supply corporal who now works for the Hapdong Corp. in downtown Seoul. "Most of us were young men and were curious about what the outside world was like." There was also the lure of $54 added to their monthly $10 army pay by a U.S. government grateful for allied support.
Jung said the Korean troops found the Vietnamese "to be lazy, we found it hard to understand their three-hour nap periods, and they did not have much unity." But many Koreans sought to extend their one-year hitches. They were known as fierce fighters, prompting insurgent Vietnamese to avoid Korean-controlled areas, and later also gained a reputation as keen dealers in the Vietnamese black market.
There was never any question of the war's popularity back home, or of the personal respect young men would receive when they got home. "You should have seen the letters he was getting from girls back in Korea," a coworker said of Jung. Wounded veterans could expect easy housing loans, sometimes free houses, and free medical care in any South Korean public hospital since the national had only one hospital exclusively for veterans.
Choi, sitting in his office at the Sip Ja Sung veterans village in Seoul's eastern suburbs, said he could not think of anything Korean veterans had to complain about. The red brick and red tile houses given each veteran in the village are now worth about $400,000. Each has a small garden, and television antennae bristle everywhere.
The chairman of the village society, former First Sgt. Kwon Ji Heng, says without such treatment "it would be difficult to produce brave soldiers." But he does admit to having had dark thoughts five years ago when he heard that South Vietnam had fallen to the communists. "I couldn't sleep that night," he said.