When most Bowdoin students think of a gap year, their minds go towards volunteering, working, or traveling for a year. But probably not serving in the armed forces.
Joonmo Ku ’12 left Bowdoin after the fall semester of his sophomore year to serve in the Republic of Korea Army. As a South Korean citizen, Ku was required to spend either two years in the service as an enlisted soldier or three years as an officer.
“I wanted to save time and do the two-year stint, and I did it halfway through sophomore year because I thought it would be better to go through all the training when I was younger,” Ku said.
Because he speaks English, Ku was able to serve in a unit composed of both American soldiers and Korean soldiers. His company’s official language was English.
“I really liked the people. They were highly motivated, and there’s very good camaraderie, so the unit was very appealing,” said Ku.
He and the other soldiers in his unit defended a secret bunker and had extensive infantry training with a focus on urban terrain.
“Every morning at 6:30 a.m., we’d have company physical fitness training,” Ku said. “You do an hour of physical training, then get breakfast. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., tactical training comes in, but it’s always different. Sometimes it’s first aid, how to take over a bunker, or chemical training.”
Ku enjoyed working with his diverse company. The Koreans in the unit were typically university-educated while none of the Americans, except for the company commander and executive officer, had college degrees.
“They were people you typically wouldn’t meet at Bowdoin. I met people who got laid off from construction companies after the recession, and one of my good friends used to be a motorcycle repairman,” he added.
The group dynamic in his company was strong as they all shared a similar mission. Further, Ku said having Americans and Koreans serve alongside each other helped the American soldiers adjust to South Korea.
“The Americans were trying to acclimate to Korean culture, and part of our job was to introduce South Korea to our American counterparts. It worked very well,” Ku added.
Before heading into an entire summer of training, Ku’s squad leader from North Carolina, Jamon Bassette, took the company out to dinner at a dog meat restaurant, a type of traditional cuisine in several East Asian cultures.
“At the time I thought he was joking, but my squad leader was leading me into an unchartered territory. I thought that was kind of neat because he had more fully adjusted to Korean culture than I had, since I was just coming back from Bowdoin,” Ku said.
Ku said he was apprehensive about coming back to Bowdoin after his two years in the service. All of his friends from his class were graduating and he was afraid that he’d have a hard time finding new friends.
But he was able to translate his experience in uniform to College. Being the most senior of the Korean enlisted soldiers, Ku looked after the wellbeing of the other soldiers in his unit. With this experience, he applied to Residential Life when he returned to Bowdoin and has been a proctor since, which has helped introduce him to other students.
“I won’t make a first year do push-ups if they make mistakes, but I think I can give them honest advice and a good sense of direction,” Ku said.
The discipline that the military instilled in him also made his transition back to life at Bowdoin easier. Ku rowed crew during his first semester back and didn’t mind waking up early for practice.
“Culturally it wasn’t hard to adjust, because I’d been abroad since I was 14, and a lot of the good discipline that I developed in the army helped me transition back to Bowdoin,” he said. ‘I got more productive and efficient with my time.”
Being in the military also taught him with some key lessons, like respecting seniority and being aware of how he conducts himself in public. Additionally, Ku said it gave him valuable insight into interacting with others.
“At Bowdoin, although we come from different backgrounds, we have similar values as far as what’s acceptable. But in the army, there are people from everywhere. It’s a challenge to motivate somebody who’s different or obey somebody you don’t respect,” he added.
Ku also learned how to take risks. He competed in the Expert Infantryman Badge Contest where soldiers complete challenges to get a badge to wear on their uniform. The contest consisted of several different levels of training and culminated in a 12-mile foot march.
“About two hours into it, I got a cramp in my leg. I had a partner who was running with me, and he told me, ‘Joon, you can’t give up.’ It was one of the first times I challenged myself beyond my limit,” Ku said. “You think you have a certain limit, but everybody has the ability to go beyond the goals that you’ve set.”
He took several risks in leaving Bowdoin partway through to complete his service, leaving behind his friends and studies and then took another gamble by joining the infantry instead of taking a desk job to avoid injury.
“Taking those key risks and trying something new...allowed me to have...two of the best years of my life thus far,” Ku said. “It’s always so easy to get comfortable in where you are, but people don’t realize the opportunities out there, but you can only take advantage of those if you go out of your comfort zone.”