WARRIOR BASE, South Korea - In the summer of 1950, Republic of Korea President Rhee Syng-man and U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur agreed to begin augmenting U.S. troops with Korean soldiers.
The Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army, commonly known as the KATUSA program, was born. What began as an integral component to the relationship that would develop between the ROK and the United States still lasts more than 60 years later and remains a vital element to the strong bonds between the two nations.
The Republic of Korea orders that all male citizens serve about two years in the military. Citizens can join the ROK army or apply for the KATUSA program, where they must go through an in-depth entry process, culminating in a lottery drawing where applicants are chosen to augment the U.S. Army.
Before their name makes it into the lottery system, KATUSA applicants must score a minimum 780 out of 990 on an English international communication test, or a minimum 690 out of 990 on the Seoul National University English proficiency test.
“We’re kind of a special group,” said Pfc. Dongjoon Eun, a KATUSA with Eighth Army Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, and Headquarters Support Company. “We need a certain amount of English knowledge to get into the program. Most KATUSAs are in college, have graduated college, or have a high level of education.”
Even though KATUSAs need to be proficient in English, it is not the only key that will open the door to the program. One of the biggest keys is completely out of their control – luck. With a 10.5 - 1 competitive ratio, earning a position within the KATUSA program is anything but guaranteed.
Gen. Paik Sun-yup, the most decorated and greatest war hero to ever serve in the ROK army, praises the merit of the program.
“It’s a wonderful program,” said Sun-yup. “Young Korean men can learn English, the American military system and get trained well.”
Sun-yup is also the namesake for the Paik Sun-yup Leadership award given to outstanding noncommissioned officer KATUSAs.
After passing the minimum requirements and getting accepted into the program, KATUSAs move on to six weeks of ROK basic army training at the Nonsan Training Academy, followed by three weeks of KATUSA specific training at the KATUSA Training Academy at Camp Jackson. They then serve for approximately two years working shoulder-to-shoulder with U.S. troops.
“I wanted to work with American soldiers so I could learn more English and experience their culture,” said Pfc. Yoon Sik Um, who works with the Eighth Army G9 shop. “We are the link between the U.S. and ROK Armies.”
As a crucial connection between the two nations, KATUSAs must know the customs and courtesies from both countries. They have to abide by the same rules and regulations that ROK soldiers adhere to and are promoted according to a regulated system of time in service. They can hold positions from an E-1 private up to an E-5 sergeant.
“At first, it was tough because I was a civilian transforming into a soldier,” Eun said. “I needed more discipline and had to be more conscious about how I behaved, because I represent another country while acting as a diplomat of my country.”
Capt. John Bull, the deputy planner with the Eighth Army G9 shop, knows the value the KATUSA program adds to military. Bull’s shop currently utilizes four KATUSAs in various junior enlistee positions. There are no slots for any rank under E-6 in Bull’s office, so the KATUSAs fill vital administration roles within the shop.
“The program has been really good for both the ROK and U.S. forces,” said Bull. “It allows us to have a full-time ROK counterpart in our office. Immaterial of rank, we have someone who is not only a cultural expert from Korea, but also someone who can understand our language and guide us in the right direction in our daily activities.”
Junior enlisted American soldiers also appreciate the extra hands that make Army work light.
“We can’t tackle the workload we have without the KATUSAs,” said Staff Sgt. Orlando Armstrong, the senior instructor for the Eighth Army Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear schoolhouse. “A lot of the things we have to do on a day-to-day basis wouldn’t get completed if those guys weren’t around. They are a critical asset for us.”
The benefits of the KATUSA program are widespread with positive impacts to not only the bigger military picture, but to the individual soldiers as well.
“U.S. soldiers are really nice. They try to understand the Korean culture,” Eun said. “My regular schedule in the Army has helped me to become healthier too. I have time to work out more now and U.S. soldiers help me with tips to get stronger.”
Militaries have always known that squared-away soldiers, strong in mind, body and friendship, make for a lasting impact. Nowhere is that more evident than in Korea with the KATUSAs and U.S. soldiers.