Regardless of the many opinions of war, most citizens would still admit that the presence of an armed force is a necessary component of society. However, the military should not be thought of as a single entity. It is composed of individuals, of workers, of students, of fathers, mothers, and the youth. It is composed of people. I recently got a chance to catch up with an old friend returning from Iraq, to ask how his experience in war influences his view of “America”. This is his “American Story”.
Feeling a need for change after his freshman year in college, Tim Park enlisted in what is often referred to as the most difficult branch of the military: the US Marine Corp. After 4 months of training and a few summer stations on the East Coast, Park came back to resume his studies at the University of Washington. But during his junior year, he was pulled out and told to get ready for war. He was being shipped to Iraq.
“Personally, I didn’t want to go to Iraq. I didn’t believe in the war,” stated the UW graduate. “But at the same time, I have a professional obligation, so I did what I had to do to get by.”
During the junior year, most college students are busy scrambling to get their credits in order; this is the year most undergrads decide their major, so more often than not, their biggest concern is choosing the right classes. For Park, his biggest concern was surviving to see the next day.
“I had gone in with the worst expectations,” recalled Park. “I thought we were going to get into firefights. I thought we were going to get hit with I.E.Ds. We did get hit with I.E.Ds, but I thought I was going to die.”
I.E.Ds. I wasn’t familiar with the term. “Improvised Explosive Device,” he would later explain to me. He calmly described the four brushes with I.E.Ds and literally, brushes with death. In such a stride, I couldn’t help but wonder if war had somehow desensitized him from an explosive impact meant to kill him. If an experience of war could change his fear of death, I wondered what else it had changed.
“Now I appreciate civilian life. I appreciate not having to stand in formation at 6 in the morning or waking up at 5 to run,” he breathes in relief. “You appreciate the little things we take for granted as Americans.”
Sleeping in and a relaxed exercise schedule aren’t the only things Park came to appreciate during his service. Being the only Asian American in his unit, he found his ethnicity as a barrier that separated him from his white counterparts. Though Park admitted that the close vicinity in which they worked and lived eventually made everyone like a family, there was still underlying issues that went unaddressed.
“I had to mute my ‘Koreaness’,” he explains. “You know when I’m with my family and friends, you can talk about certain things related to the culture, but over there, there’s no one to do that with. I came to appreciate my ethnicity a lot more, just because I was so away from it, ingrained in the US military culture.”
In addition to culture, Park also found a passion he didn’t know he had: reading. He lightheartedly told me about his rediscovery of books, how he adopted the moniker the “Reading Machine” and detailed the repeated accounts of scurrying to the base library with a cardboard box and an eager anticipation to see what new titles had shipped in. According to Park, his affair with literature gave him a new appreciation for education.
Park now applies that passion by attending his second year at a prestigious law school and taking on another difficult regimen as a law student. He views law as a powerful tool to help others, holding Thurgood Marshall’s milestone accomplishment of desegregating schools as his ideal, and referring to it as how “real change is instilled.”
War is an ugly affair. I would like to believe that most people in this world would favor peaceful resolution over violent conflict. But after this interview, I begin to wonder if anything humane can be salvaged from war. Paradoxically, Park found his calling to help others while on the battlefield. I wonder if he would have found it had he never been sent to Iraq. I wonder— knowing what he knows, living through what he has lived—if he’d do it over again.
“It’s not simple, you know,” he hesitatingly answers, slowly stirring his watered-down beverage. “I don’t regret going to Iraq because our unit didn’t do anything I regret. Our unit – thank God – didn’t have to kill anyone. But for the first time you’re concretely facing the possibility of death. A lot of the petty immaturities kind of fade. It made me think about what I was going to do. That’s the one thing I realized in Iraq. I found what I would do.”