Sleepless nights for parents of soldiers
It takes less than a month in Korea for a hero to become a villain, and the Korean Marines are one such example. Just a month ago, the Marines were the symbol of manhood, machismo, adventurism and patriotism.
The Korean Marines take pride in being one of the strongest military units in the world. Their bravery was well documented in the Korea War and Vietnam War. Famous Korean Wave star Hyun Bin joined the Marines in January. The Marines enjoy the description of the warriors who are even capable of arresting ghosts. Many government agencies and companies have used Marine barracks to train new employees in an attempt to inculcate the can-do spirit. Veterans are proud of the slogan, once a Marine, always a Marine.
This positive image completed changed last week after a lone Marine corporal went on a deadly shooting spree at his barracks near Incheon.
He shot dead four fellow soldiers and injured two others who had allegedly harassed him before attempting to kill himself with a hand grenade. Tests had shown he was mentally unstable. He committed the murderous act under the influence of alcohol.
Aiming shots at the colleagues he hated was truly shocking. The killer claimed he could not bear the bullying and harassment by higher-and lower-ranked soldiers in an organized ostracism plot. He could not control those under him, who did not use honorifics when addressing him. The killer’s senior non-commissioned officers (NCOs) encouraged the ostracism. The killer could find few who treated him as a human being, driving him mad and forcing him to take the extreme action.
A suspected accomplice claims that one higher-ranked soldier once burnt his Bible, saying that a Marine sergeant was equivalent to God in rank. He allegedly complained that one of the NCOs ranked above him, set fire to his combat uniform after spraying it with pesticide. Two of his NCOs were arrested for physical violence and commanding officers were relieved of their duties.
More than 940 Marines were reportedly treated in hospital from January 2009 to March 2010 for physical abuse.
In another blow to the Marines, a 19-year-old conscript hanged himself Sunday in a shower room at barracks in the port city of Pohang.
Private First Class Jung could not bear the harassment from his higher-ranked fellow soldiers. He alleged that they beat him for snoring. An autopsy showed that his body was bruised.
The National Human Rights Commission found in its March survey that physical and mental abuse is still widespread in barracks. Soldiers sometimes must perform numerous chin-ups and endure force-feeding, namely forcing soldiers to eat allocated food in a designated short period of time. Sleeping soldiers suddenly receive orders to take cold showers in winter.
In winters, soldiers were sometimes asked to touch their tongues onto frozen bayonets or to sleep with their eyes open or to flush the toilet after sticking their heads into toilet bowls. Soldiers must pull off clothespins from the noses of peers. Higher-ranked NCOs force soldiers to polish shoes and iron uniforms.
A soldier feels enormous stress when he is sidelined from a joint work. This sometimes results in retaliation as one of his upper-ranked colleagues must do the chores on his behalf. Retired soldiers talk about indescribable harassment they endured.
In May, a Marine private killed himself after being scolded and suffering physical abuse for being slow. The Army is also investigating the suicides of two soldiers inside and outside the barrack this month.
Each year, 75 to 81 soldiers kill themselves.
Is there a solution? The military should be honest. Any officer hiding or downplaying the incident should face prosecution without exception. Psychiatrists are also necessary in barracks to monitor the mental health of soldiers. About 2 percent of soldiers reportedly have potential mental illnesses. Koreans have to change their bias toward mental problems. It has long been taboo here for persons to talk about mental instability. Civilian consultants must be hired to monitor whether the military culture is moving in keeping with changing social trends. The military should not try to force its outdated norms on young soldiers. It must change itself to catch up with society and not vice versa. Officers also need to understand that 20-something soldiers are quite different from them in their way of thinking and lifestyle.
Marines should change their closed culture. Commanders should overcome the illusion that physical violence is a necessary evil to maintain order. Abuse is not a substitute for proper discipline. This anachronistic way of thinking weakens combat capability. Military culture should be based on comradeship that comes out of shared experiences under rigorous and hard training and conduct of duty.
Until such bad practices disappear from the barracks, parents cannot sleep well. The latest incidents should not demoralize rank and file soldiers who sacrifice themselves for the defense of the country. All young men doing military service should receive respect, not abuse. Incidents that occur inside and outside the barracks are preventable.
Lee Chang-sup is the chief editorial writer of The Korea Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org