|By Ben Hamamato, Pacific News Service
A young Korean-American Army nurse stationed at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., talks about caring for U.S. soldiers wounded in Iraq, their attitude toward the war, and Army life.
April 5, 2004 – Jay and I grew up together. He was a smart, funny and outgoing guy, though sometimes troubled and mischievous. As we got older, the troubled side took over. Two years after high school Jay was homeless, and he disappeared from my life for nearly a year. To my relief he re-emerged as an Army nurse with a stable head on his shoulders.
Today, at 22, he is stationed at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. — the first stop for many injured soldiers on their way back from Iraq.
He comes back to visit whenever he can. His once shaggy hair is now spiked and slicked back, and his classic Korean facial features have sharpened. I recently sat down with him to hear his story.
Q: First off, how did you decide to join the Army?
Jay: I was a 20-year-old bum. I was just sleeping wherever I could, different place every night, messed up on all kinds of sh–. I knew I had to do something. I walked into the Eastmont Mall, where there was an Army recruiting office, just to check it out. They were real friendly, smiling and stuff, but you don’t even have time to think. They won’t let you go, and next thing you know you’ve signed up. They must have huddles like in football. They run a play on you.
Q: Were drug tests a problem?
Jay: Most people ain’t gonna pass that test, and the recruiters know it. They straight give you that GNC detox stuff, and they prep you for your physical. They’re like, “Say no to everything.” You done this? No. You done that? No. I don’t care if you’re high right now, the answer is NO.
Q: Was the Army different than you thought it would be?
Jay: I had this idea that everyone in the Army is hella dedicated to the cause and I’d have to be, too. Don’t get me wrong, people in the Army work hard — really hard — but we’re still a bunch of dumbasses. It’s sad. I look at my commander and I’m smarter than him. I’m like, oh sh–, these are the people calling the shots?
Q: What’s it like being Korean in the military?
Jay: Well, in the Army I’m Chinese, not Korean. Half the people in here are from Alabama; they damn near don’t even know where Korea is. So I’m Chinese. It works for me.
Q: What do the people you’ve encountered in the Army think of the war in Iraq?
Jay: Every week we get a briefing on why we’re doing what we’re doing in Iraq, and many of these people from the East Coast and Midwest just nod their heads. They believe every word. But I’m like, “Damn, they said something different last week!” I’m from Cali, y’know, we don’t just take that stuff at face value. Some of these fools don’t care, they just want citizenship. They’ve got green cards dangling in front of their faces.
Q: How many patients do you get from Iraq?
Jay: Every week we get soldiers, maybe 60 or so. They come back all messed up, legs and arms missing. Some of them in comas. Politics aside, that’s a terrible thing. And they don’t get the Jessica Lynch treatment, neither. She was staying at my hospital and they got her anything she wanted, 24/7. But you’ve got paraplegics over here spending most of their time alone. I try to keep them company when I can.
Q: How do the soldiers feel about having been wounded in the war?
Jay: Sometimes they just wanna chop it up about regular stuff. Sometimes though, it gets real heavy. They talk about their families, their friends, girlfriends, wives. They tell me stories about Iraq. Some of them feel like they sacrificed for a good cause. Others don’t. Some of them, they ask me what I think and I’m like, “Yo, you gotta sort that out yourself.” I can’t be telling someone who lost a limb whether I think they did it for a worthy cause.
Q: Do you think your decision to join the Army was a good one? Would you recommend the Army to other people?
Jay: I’m a nurse, so I don’t do anything that doesn’t sit right with my morals. For kids like me, you don’t have a lot of options. The military gives you discipline, they give you money for education, it looks good on a resume. It’s not that bad — you have to work hard, but that’s it. Just following orders is the most important thing. They don’t want you wondering why, they just want you to do what you’re told. So, if there isn’t a war going on, it’s a pretty good deal. I’d say do it. Work hard, you’ll be OK… just don’t ask any questions.
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PNS contributor Ben Hamamato, 22, is a filmmaker and writer for YO! Youth Outlook (www.youthoutlook.org), a publication by and for San Francisco Bay Area youth and a PNS project.