Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Learning the language

When I served in Korea in 1993, I had my first extended contact with soldiers from other armies.

The U.S. Army forces in the Republic of Korea are augmented by the KATUSA program. KATUSA actually stands for Korean Augmentation to the United States Army.*

Naturally, the U.S. soldiers called the KATUSA soldiers simply "KATUSAs."

It was interesting to watch how the KATUSAs would break in new KATUSAs. They'd scream, yell, get physical to some degree -- and it was pretty intense. Much, much worse than Basic Training was when I went through. And much, much worse than what I hear about how Basic Training is today.

We'd watch the KATUSAs break in the new guys ... from a distance ... quietly, trying not to be seen. But, the KATUSAs were only like that to each other, and only -- so it seemed -- for a short period of time.

When a KATUSA served directly alongside the U.S soldiers, they were as fascinated by us as we were by them. We figured it was because our soldiers had an easier time of things. Not just by the way we were towards each other, but because our equipment was a lot newer and better.

One of the most interesting things was overcoming the language barrier.

Most American soldiers don't speak Korean. Oh, sure, everyone who serves there learns a few Korean phrases -- and some learn the language. But fall the KATUSAs know English. At least to a large degree.

However, everyday English is not as commonly known. Lots of slang isn't known. And, when they pick up slang, they may not always understand all the subtleties. And, that can lead to unintentional humor.

I remember once, I was speaking with a chaplain at Camp Hovey, and his assistant, a KATUSA, came into the room.

The topic of the chaplain HMMWV came up. And the chaplain asked about an issue with the vehicle. When an inspection uncovers a fault, and it's a critical fault, causing the vehicle to be classified as inoperable, it was commonly, though unofficially, called a "deadline" fault.

The chaplain was telling his KATUSA assistant to record the problem on the 2404, making sure he understood it was a deadline fault.

"Deadline" was unfamiliar to the KATUSA, who had picked up many other slang terms. He asked about that word.

The chaplain tried to explain, "It causes it to not be operational. You can't use it. It's a major problem, and we can't drive the HMMWV until it's fixed."

The KATUSAs face lit up. "Ah. Fucked up."

The chaplain paused for a moment, then nodded. "Yes. We call it 'deadlined."

The chaplain managed to teach a new, proper slang word to the KATUSA. And I got to practice not laughing out loud.

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