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Korean soldiers help rebuild lives ruined by ‘Yolanda’

/ 02:37 AM March 16, 2014

A young boy waits at the side of the road for fresh water surrounded by debris from Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, central Philippines. AP FILE PHOTO

TOLOSA, Leyte, Philippines—With the threat of war ever looming in their homeland, South Korea’s young soldiers here are finding time to relax amid the urgency of the job before them: helping rebuild homes and schools in towns ravaged by Supertyphoon “Yolanda” on Nov. 8 last year.

At least four of the 529 members of South Korea’s military volunteers known as the Araw (Sun) Contingent are finding ways to relieve their stress after grueling hours of backbreaking work.

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“I hit the gym, sing karaoke, and see what’s happening to the world through the CNN app on my cell phone,” said 1st Lt. Hwang Dae-heung, who acts as the interpreter of the predominantly male group of soldiers.

The soldiers carry no iPhones or iPads. A strict patriotic code instilled in them allows them to carry only South-Korean-made products like Samsung and LG cell phones and tablets.

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Hwang, a 24-year-old conscript from Busan, South Korea, has lived in the Philippines for seven years, attending school here. He graduated with a degree in social sciences from the University of Santo Tomas in 2011.

Close to his heart

“This country is very close to my heart. Typhoon Yolanda has made it even closer. I will never forget my life here,” said Hwang, who speaks a little Filipino.

With all the talk of saber rattling by North Korea and the scuttled talks of family reunions from the North and South back home, 19-year-old Army Cpl. Lee Chang-hun of Paju City talks about how he misses his family very much.

“I am in the military and I am not to show any emotion. But I miss them all,” said Lee, the youngest in a brood of three. His father is a Christian pastor and his mother, a kindergarten teacher back in Paju.

To relax, Lee sings his favorite Korean ballads on karaoke and chats with his friends on Facebook.

Because of the threat of war with the North, the Republic of South Korea has made it mandatory for all able-bodied males to be conscripted into military service by age 18. Their tour of duty ranges from 21 to 24 months. Military service is voluntary for women.

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Love of country and utmost admiration for South Korea’s first female president, Park

Geun-hye, inspired 1st Sgt. Park Seon-hye to join the Army. The 33-year-old mother of two from Pazu, South Korea, is into the latest craze that is sweeping her country: KakaoTalk.

“KakaoTalk is a free Internet chat service. I talk to my husband and kids every day using KakaoTalk,” said Park, who is a dental assistant with Araw’s medical mission here.

Lt. Baek Myung-hyun, 27, another interpreter of the group, said the Araw Contingent was here to pay back the sacrifices of the Filipino volunteers who helped defend South Korea against the North Koreans who invaded it during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953.

In 1952, two of the prominent Filipinos who saw action in that war were a newly minted 23-year-old graduate of West Point Academy, Lt. Fidel V. Ramos, and a wide-eyed 18-year-old reporter named Benigno S. Aquino Jr., sent by the Manila Times newspaper of the Joaquin “Chino” Roces era.

In gratitude for their deployment during the Korean War, the Araw team rebuilt the typhoon-damaged houses of at least two Filipino Korean War veterans, Segundino Gresola, 84, of Carigara town and Sofio Lobrego, 85, of Dagami town, Leyte province.

Clean sweep

After it arrived and pitched camp in Candahug village in Palo town, Leyte, on  Dec. 29, South Korea’s young soldiers, aided by  45 heavy vehicles and machinery, have been clearing the streets of typhoon debris as well as cleaning public toilets, latrines, markets and slaughterhouses in Palo, Tanauan town and this hometown of former first lady Imelda Marcos.

But the greatest impact that the soldiers have made is in the speedy repair of schoolhouses damaged by Yolanda. According to Baek, his team has repaired five schools in four towns, Leyte Provincial Hospital in Pawing village and an orphanage of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, both in Palo.

On Friday, the local population here showed their visiting South Korean benefactors that the historical alliance forged by the Korean War was not lost on them.

“Our partnership is forged in blood. And we will always be thankful to you for coming here in our time of need,” said Maria Vanessa C. Raz, principal of Telegrafo Elementary School, with the 452 students under her care listening under the midday sun.

Araw repaired two school buildings in Telegrafo Elementary School. One of those who lent a helping hand was Lee.

“I find it most rewarding when I see the smiles of the children running around after we repaired their schools. When I see that, I realize why our country sent us here,” Lee said through an interpreter.

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TAGS: Araw Contingent, Army Cpl. Lee Chang-hun, Hwang Dae-heung, Paju City, South Korea, super typhoon Yolanda, Yolanda Aid
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