CAMP WARRIOR, South Korea – While growing up just outside of South Korea’s capital of Seoul, Pfc. Min Seob Lee of the South Korean army never really understood why American service members were in his country.
But after he was selected to serve in the Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army program, known as KATUSA, Lee said, his attitude quickly changed.
“I wasn’t clear about what the U.S. Army does here,” Lee said. “But now I really see the commitment and dedication of the U.S. Army and its soldiers. I understand now that they are here to protect and defend Korea. I can see the values of the American soldier firsthand.”
Lee is attached to the 8th U.S. Army’s public affairs office, where his official job title is administrative assistant. But his duties also include driving and whatever else he can do to assist in the shop’s day-to-day operations.
Lee honed his English skills while living in Europe with his family and while studying at the University of California-Berkley.
“I do a lot of translating, as well as helping soldiers understand the Korean culture,” he said. “I like working with the U.S. Army and assisting in its mission to defend freedom in Korea.”
“KATUSA soldiers like Lee really make our operations run a lot smoother,” said Staff Sgt. Josephine Ampley of 8th Army public affairs. “Their language skills and overall contributions are a definite credit to the [South Korean] army, as well as being invaluable to the U.S. Army and our mission here.”
The KATUSA program began in July 1950 during the Korean War. Originally intended to match able-bodied Korean personnel with available U.S. equipment, the program has evolved into a cultural exchange and a symbol of friendship between the two nations.
Most South Korean men serve their 21 months of mandatory military service in one of their country’s service branches. A select few are chosen to augment the U.S. Army through the KATUSA program. These select individuals are conscripted citizens who, by obligation, put their lives on hold to serve their country and work alongside U.S. soldiers.
Lee said he wanted to be a KATUSA soldier after becoming immersed in American culture during his time as a college student.
“Having studied in America, I felt the KATUSA program was for me,” he said. “So I applied for it when it was time for me to complete my mandatory service.”
KATUSA applicants are first selected through a lottery. Once selected, trainees complete six weeks of South Korean army basic training and an additional three weeks at the KATUSA Training Academy.
“Being chosen in the lottery was pure luck,” Lee acknowledged. “But I am glad it worked out the way it did. This has been an invaluable experience for me.”
After completing his 21 months of mandatory military service, Lee said, he plans to return to the United States to pursue a law degree.
“Working with the U.S. Army has opened a lot of doors for me and [has] given me the discipline needed to be successful,” he said. “I am proud to call myself a KATUSA.”
Maj. Isaac Taylor, 8th Army public affairs, said the KATUSA program’s significance goes beyond the daily contributions made by soldiers such as Lee.
“It illustrates how really strong the [South Korean]-U.S. alliance is,” he explained. “It’s also amazing that they allow us to have not just any of their young men, but some of their highly educated future leaders who have goals that will reach far beyond the military and into all aspects of their society.”