top of page

Child Soldiering: My martial arts and self-defense training story

In one year, I went from being a complete novice to mastering self-defense. It was when I was in South Korea from March 1974 to March 1975, while assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division Headquarters & Headquarters Co., at Camp Casey Korea, on the DMZ. President Bill Clinton once described it as "the scariest place on earth". At all of 17, 1/2 years of age, around mid March 1974, I arrived at Kimpo International Airport (now known as Gimpo International Airport), near the capital Seoul. I was unprepared for what laid ahead.

Little did I know that I was the youngest US soldier in South Korea at the time. My company commander made me aware of the fact after my first month in-country, when he said he was going to give me one more chance to either shape up or get out. I didn't want to be there. I had signed up for the Eighth Army. I had a contract for an assignment down south, where my one-year older brother was stationed, hundreds of miles south well behind the front lines. We had signed what was called a "buddy plan", where two people would serve together throughout their service.

September 13th, 1973, one week after my 17th birthday, at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Six months later I would be on the DMZ in South Korea; the most militarized place on planet earth, and back in my day, one of the most frightening.

The way my company commander presented me with my options was notable, because what he was diplomatically telling me was: "that you had better shape up or you are going to get yourself killed boy". The 2nd Infantry Division wasn't trying to ship people out at that time. He would have simply sent me to another company and have me die on someone else's watch.

The war tension was deep. Thoughts and deadly evidence of a looming catastrophic full-scale invasion from North Korea is what defined every second of life along the DMZ. You had to get your entire DNA on a war footing. It was all surreal, and truly overwhelming for me (at first). Everyone on all sides was preparing, practicing, and attempting at all times to slaughter the other, or to prevent being slaughtered by the other. No joke! And I was a baby. And I was scared. Not "pee-on-myself" scared, rather "let-me-get-the-heck-out-of here; somebody-about-to-get-hurt (again)", kind of scared.

I wanted no part of it. Life and death events were unfolding all the time. As I rode from Seoul to the DMZ, in the back of a 2,1/2ton army truck, my entire life passed before me. The closer we got to the DMZ, the signs of imminent war increased: tank traps built across all the valleys, heavily armed check points everywhere, sandbagged machine gun fortifications and strategic firing positions scattered everywhere, heavily armed cobra helicopters sweeping the road in front of us, vast minefields, military jets heading who knows where overhead, radio chatter, tanks and other military vehicles going about in every direction. This was my awakening.

My final warning/wake-up conversation with my company commander was un-rushed. After some ugly military formalities (he seriously dressed me down by the book), things became quite informal. He took me under his wing. He apparently saw something in me. I easily capitulated. From that moment I made a commitment to myself, and to him, that I would begin to work to reflect the values I saw in him. After observing my "re-hab" process for a few weeks, he eventually made me his personal driver.

For at least 8 of the 12 months I spent in Korea, I was one of few that had access to transportation 24 hours a day, and a pass to go anywhere at almost any time. I took full advantage of the opportunity, with the wink-wink blessing of my company commander. There were rules, and they were absolute: Keep the jeep and yourself super-clean, sharp and ready at all times; come when I call (I got really good at this; when he thought about it, I was already there); and never ever embarrass him or the army.

I drove all over the 2nd Division and the surrounding area (officially and unofficially) like very few soldiers could.

Maximum fitness and hand-to-hand combat training was mandatory, and so was Taekwondo. Every single soldier in the 2nd Infantry Division under lieutenant general Henry Emerson was army-assigned a Taekwondo uniform, and mandated to train thru the ranks. Few exceptions were granted. Few asked for them. The soldiers wanted to train and fight. Everyone was chomping at the bit. The 2nd Division at that time was an elite fighting machine. And we were very well led by an military legend. The following description of Emerson from Wikipedia also provides a deeper look into what life was like in the division.

Everett "Hank" Emerson (May 28, 1925 – February 4, 2015) was a United States Army lieutenant general best known for being the commander of the 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea during the mid-1970s, when Colin Powell served as a battalion commander. Emerson was known for his somewhat eccentric personality, from his training methods to carrying a cowboy-style revolver in place of a regulation semi-automatic pistol. He was a believer in reverse-cycle training, during which troops trained at night and slept during the day. He also required that they watch the television film Brian's Song, to promote racial harmony. Colin Powell, who would later go on to become a four-star general and the U.S. Secretary of State, has stated that he and Emerson were very close and that what set Emerson apart was his great love of his soldiers and concern for their welfare. When Powell wrote his autobiography, "My American Journey", he dedicated an entire chapter to Emerson. Powell said that Emerson's leadership philosophy was "if we don't do our jobs right Soldiers will not win".

After about 3 months of committed self-defense training, I was selected by my company commander to attend the army-ran Taekwondo Instructor School. Once I came to understand the seriousness of my circumstances, and conceded to the fact that the DMZ and all its issues were my new reality, I got busy.

I dived deep into Taekwondo, and caught on fast. I looked for and devoured every training opportunity I could find in any art form. Training for survival was the absolute center of my life, and my training network grew rapidly. With the jeep I could stretch out.

At some point I got invited to go up and train in the mountains with a secretive group of very raw and very radical black soldiers. The group met up in the mountains once a week and trained and partied. The group had people from many different art forms, and were from a variety of units.These guys thrived in the world of extreme violence. We taught and learned from each other. The training and sparring (with and without weapons) was extreme. I loved it. I thrived. It was literally at the edge of life and death. Everything was kept secret because everything we did was unauthorized, and far off from where we should have been at any given moment. If we got ambushed we would have been on our own. And we liked it that way.

Taekwondo Instructor School was conducted in a gym on the base. For soldiers assigned to attend, that was their job. Eight hours a day, everyday, for two or three weeks. It was intense to say the least. No one played around. Everyone was training to stay alive, and to be able to teach our fellow soldiers the same. To be able to stand out in this world of self-defense and martial arts was no small thing for a 5', 5", 125lbs, 17 years of age manchild.

After I completed Taekwondo Instructor School, I was re-assigned back to my unit as part of my unit's teaching cadre. And now you know. Ever since, I have continued to seek out every training/learning opportunity I could, in an effort to get even better. And also, since that time I was also willing to share what I knew with others. This is my life now, and has been for a very long time.

Thanks to the internet, I can finally share this story, that for over 44 years, I have kept to myself. No one in my family knows it. Mostly, I think, because no one ever asked, and secondly because, I didn't think anyone would have believe it; what I faced everyday, how I coped with it, and how profoundly it all impacted me, and how much of who I am today was shaped by it all.

The attached video which I recently found on Youtube, is about one soldier's (Michael Berman) experience in the 2nd Division. It tells his story, and it tells mine too. His time of service in Korea (Jan. 1974 to Aug. 1975), his base camp, and the challenging reality of what we as soldiers in the 2nd Infantry Division faced every day, overlaps with mine. I'm happy to finally be able to share this part of my life story, and finally put some closure to it.

My brother and I at home in Detroit in December 1973, after completing basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. We were both headed to Redstone Arsenal in Alabama for more training before getting flown off to South Korea. I was 17, he was 18. We were just kids out looking for some adventure. And we found it.

When I teach self-defense, it's all rooted in the time I spent in Korea as a proud child-soldier of the United States 2nd Infantry Division. While under the command of general Emerson, I can assure you, that as a lethal fighting machine, we soldiers truly believed, totally bought into, acted like it, and trained intensely to insure they we were indeed second to none. I went to Korea a private and left as a specialist fourth class. What were you doing at 17?

8 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page