During my illustrious year serving as a platoon leader in the Republic of Korea, I had to deal with a myriad of situations. Like Las Vegas, Korea was one of those places where people arrived and thought “What happens here stays here.” It wasn’t like being stateside, when you went home and had someone to answer to at the end of the day. No, this was half a world away with the Pacific Ocean separating you from the Good ol’ U.S. of A. If you didn’t call home you could say you were out in the field or explain that you were trying to save money. If you did call, you could tell the person on the other end a number of lies. It wasn’t like they could ever check up on you. Many people viewed this level of freedom as a doorway of opportunity.
One of those people was a sergeant in my platoon. He was a section leader—an E-5 in his mid-twenties. Sergeant Seymour was a tall man, with a medium build and glasses that implied intelligence. I gathered that he had a wife and five year old son back in Fort Bliss, Texas, but he hardly mentioned them. There were three other section leaders, guys that were all E-5’s and E-6’s and of course, there was my right hand man, the platoon sergeant, an E-7.
Our platoon was on Osan airbase just south of Seoul. The main gate butted against Songtan, a town packed with shops catered to the whims of the American dollar. Songtan had nightclubs, travel agencies, bedding stores, custom tailors, restaurants, and a number of shops that pushed “authentic” leather Coach bags. Despite all of this civilization (to include the airbase), the platoon’s site was on the far side of the runway, closer to a sea of rice paddies than to the Burger King and the Commissary. We were so far out that we didn’t even have plumbing because there were no pipes that ran from the main section of the base beyond the runway. We had two trailers and three port-a-potties and an unpaved lot filled with rocks far too big to pass for gravel. This isolation plus a rotating schedule of 24 hour shifts made the group closer. Almost everyone had a nickname, most of which were coined by Sergeant Borges, one of the section leaders and the resident comedian. He could make fun of people far above his pay grade, do it right to their faces, and they wouldn’t get mad because his delivery always involved a smile or an impish glint in his eye, as if to say, if I find it funny, so should you. I also believe this same quality was the reason why he an E-5 at the age of 35, while his friend and peer, the 33 year old platoon sergeant, was two steps ahead and already looking forward to a promotion. While Sergeant Borges had moments that displayed his leadership potential, no one took him seriously.
The platoon headquarters trailer had an announcement system that Sergeant Borges liked to play with. The thing had a siren and a number of other amplified blips and beeps.
“Is Seymour Butts around? I want a Seymour Butts?” Sergeant Borges announced, resurrecting the old Bart Simpson phone prank to beckon Sergeant Seymour.
Everyone in the platoon was a legal adult, but no one was above grade school humor. Whenever Sergeant Borges made one of his announcements, anybody within hearing range would stop what they were doing and laugh, or at least crack a smile. Our isolated site and the constant roar of jet engines protected these announcements from being heard by anyone but us. This was our island.
Sergeant Seymour always went along with the joke. He seemed to be an easy going guy who didn’t readily socialize with the other sergeants, preferring to keep to himself. He did well on P.T. tests but otherwise wasn’t a golden boy or a problem child. He was just your average, run-of-the-mill junior NCO.
“Does anyone know where he is?” demanded our commander.
She was a 28 year old captain juggling a battery consisting of three platoons. Her office was on Suwon airbase, ten miles from the battery’s location on Osan and this separation worked to our advantage, affording us ample goof off time. We knew she couldn’t be at the maintenance, fire control or launcher platoon sites AND in her office all at once. And if she left the office, someone usually had enough sense to call ahead and warn everyone that she was on her way. This gave us a 30-45 minute lead to get things straightened up for her arrival. The only times she had the entire battery in one place was in the mornings, during formation, and in the evenings, during formations. It was a morning formation when we discovered Sergeant Seymour was gone.
“He wasn’t in his room, ma’am.” Said my platoon sergeant. “We already checked.”
The commander wasn’t happy with this. A vertical line was etched into her forehead, right between her eyebrows. By the end of her year in command, I thought, that thing’s going to be as deep as the Mariana Trench.
She dismissed everyone else and kept me, the XO and my platoon sergeant around.
“Okay,” she said with a sigh, “maybe there was an accident. Let’s think of the possible places where he might be. XO, call around to the local hospitals.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Replied the XO.
“He wasn’t on duty over the weekend, but he could’ve stayed on site.” My platoon sergeant said. “He might’ve gone out last night and went to the site when it looked like he wasn’t going to make it back to his room on time.”
We tried to come up with plausible reasons to explain the mysterious disappearance of Sergeant Seymour. No matter what scenario we imagined, the conclusion was always this: Something happened that was beyond his control. We didn’t ever consider that his disappearance might have been intentional.
“He’s not in any of the hospitals.”
“He wasn’t on site.”
Those two findings meant this guy was still somewhere out there. Sergeant Borges kept the mood light.
“He fell down drunk and hit his head and he’s out there in Songtan wandering around with a case of amnesia.” He joked. “He can’t figure out why everyone’s calling him ‘Round Eye.’”
A week later, someone spotted him during lunchtime.
“He was standing on the sidewalk across the street!” A private said. Three people from the platoon had seen him just before getting lunch in the food court and they recounted the story to the rest of us as if it were a Bigfoot sighting.
“He was standing right there, but when I waved, he turned and walked away like he didn’t even know us.” This came from one of the soldiers in Sergeant Seymour’s section. She seemed hurt that he had failed to acknowledge her.
“We have to report him as AWOL. It’s already been two weeks.” The commander broke the news to me and my platoon sergeant in her office. “Once we start proceedings, we can have him dropped from the payrolls.”
Among pregnancies, adultery, article 15s and multiple instances of soldiers being sent to the psychology ward (by order or request), having someone go AWOL was a new first for us.
How can someone just disappear?
His room was still completely intact. All of the clothes, civilian and uniform, were still in his closet. He didn’t even have his wallet with him, or his military I.D. How was he getting back through the gates without a military I.D.?
“They got him.”
The phone call wasn’t long after the day of the Bigfoot sighting. The Air force security police captured Sergeant Seymour at the gates when they matched his face to the blown up photocopy of his I.D. card.
“You need to go to the station and pick him up.” My commander told me and my platoon sergeant.
My platoon sergeant used the power of delegation to escape the task. He sent Sergeant Borges with me that night to pick up our wayward soldier.
We rode in my car, a black 1987 Daewoo Prince. There was an unofficial rule that officers should have cars so they didn’t have to rely on a bus to get from the site on Osan back to the headquarters on Suwon. For $500, I had a set of wheels courtesy of the warrant officer who sold me his ride. One of my fellow lieutenants, a guy who spoke Hangul and was engaged to a Korean, explained to me that Koreans didn’t really believe in keeping old cars, after so many years, they wound up in the junk yard. “Tune up” was a foreign concept and my car was long past its expiration date. I wasn’t a religious person, but I said a little prayer every time I got into this car. At 12 years old, it was a miracle the thing was still running.
When we arrived at the station, which was just inside the main gate, one of the airmen greeted us and welcomed us into their waiting area. He wore his uniform with an accessory belt that held a billy club, handcuffs and a pistol.
“You know, he was trying to get back on base and we said, wait a minute—aren’t you that guy that went AWOL? Well, long story short, he’s in the back now.” The guy said. His puffed out chest indicated his obvious pride in catching the legendary Bigfoot.
Sergeant Borges and I waited for our prisoner. The waiting room had a sofa and two chairs, all upholstered in matching brown vinyl, a countertop with the sign in roster, and a hallway that looked like it led back to the holding cells. It reminded me a bit of the waiting room of a doctor’s office. Above the countertop was a banner with the police unit’s motto. “Defending the Force, Maintaining the Peace” it read.
“Well that’s catchy,” Sergeant Borges said after reading it out loud several times, in varying inflections.
“What’s taking so long?” I wondered aloud. We had been sitting there at least 10 minutes and no one was reappearing from the hallway that led to the jail cells.
“I’ll bet they let him go.” Sergeant Borges said.
Five minutes later, I heard two of the airmen talking. The one who welcomed us when we arrived emerged from the hallway. He looked embarrassed.
Sergeant Borges and I rose from our seats.
“So where’s Sergeant Seymour?” I said.
“He went outside on a smoke break and I guess he got back out through the gates.”
“You let him go out on a smoke break?” Sergeant Borges said. “No one went out with him?”
The second airman nodded. “Yes, but he was right outside the door.”
“Let me get this straight, you let the guy who you caught for being AWOL--you let him go?”
“No," the airman replied, "he ran away.”
Sergeant Borges stormed out of the station with a cigarette at the ready. He placed it between his lips and looked at me. “I’m hungry, L.T. You hungry?”
He lit the cigarette and took a long drag. “Let’s go outside the gates before we head back.”
In the short walk through the gates, Sergeant Borges shared his theory. “As soon as Seymour heard our voices he asked for a smoke break and those idiots gave it to them. ‘Defending the Force,’ my ass. If they spent less time coming up with catchy mottos, maybe they’d be able to contain someone who’s unarmed.”
In the middle of the street there was an older Korean woman with a cart of hot food. I knew from experience that some of these carts yielded the best food you’d ever tasted. Who needs filet mignon when you could have meat on a stick?
“You ever tried this, L.T.?” Sergeant Borges said. I shook my head. He greeted the cart’s owner, Miss Kim, and she asked him something.
“Oh no, no.” he said laughing. Sergeant Borges looked at me and smiled. “She asked if we were together.”
The idea was laughable. Sergeant Borges reminded me of the clever older brother that I never had. Ignoring the fact that I was charge of the guy, I was 23 and he was 35; he was old.
“You want one, L.T.? It’s on me.”
Miss Kim’s specialties were burgers topped with fried eggs and condiments. At night, most of the shops were closed, but the clubs were open and the streets and sidewalks were dotted with strategically placed food carts. This was a market catered towards the drunk American servicemembers who stumbled out of the clubs with a hankering.
The burger filled my stomach and took some of the sting out of Sergeant Seymour eluding us once again. By morning, the whole fiasco was just more material for Sergeant Borges to add to his repertoire.
On a Friday evening, I worked with the first sergeant and one of my section leaders to pack up Seymour’s room. Rooms were a commodity and it made no sense to use one as a storage facility for someone who had chosen to leave.
“Twelve shirts.” The first sergeant said, as he piled a bunch of flannel button downs onto Seymour’s stripped mattress.
“No, first sergeant,” said my section leader, who was marking the inventory list, “you have to describe each one.”
The First sergeant rolled his eyes, as if to inform us that he didn’t have time for this shit. He was nearing retirement and Sergeant Seymour’s shenanigans were yet another reminder of why he was ready to leave the Army.
It took a few hours, but we managed to box up Seymour’s clothes, toiletries and computer. A few people came by to see if they could siphon off some of his stuff, but that wasn’t allowed. According to the regulations, everything he had in that room had to be inventoried and stored in cardboard boxes.
Another two weeks passed without any more sightings of Sergeant Seymour. The man who had been nearly invisible while he was around had become a legend in absentia.
After a morning formation, the commander pulled us into her office to tell us she had spoken to Sergeant Seymour’s wife.
“She can’t stay in post housing now that he’s officially AWOL,” she said. “His wife threatened to take this to the press.”
I could imagine the story about the big bad Army kicking out the poor defenseless Army family out of their home. It was a twist on the tale of David and Goliath.
“Let her go to the press,” said the First sergeant, who was clearly tired of the entire situation. “We’re just following the rules. Her issue isn’t with us; it’s with her no-good husband.”
It was Sergeant Borges who trapped Seymour. He took great joy in telling the story multiple times, which was no surprise, given his outgoing personality. He was the hero and had no qualms with promoting himself.
“We were out in Songtan—at a club,” He said, “And we see him hanging out, so I go up to him and invite him over. Then I went to the bar and acted like I was ordering drinks. What I really did was tell the guy next to me:
‘Don’t look at me, don’t talk to me. The guy over there in the
glasses is AWOL. I need you to go to the cops on Osan and get
them down here ASAP.’
He would then lean back and let the suspense build. “So we’re in there smokin’ and jokin’ with him. He had no clue what was about to go down. Next thing you know, the S.P.’s get there and they’re dragging Seymour Butts outta there in cuffs.”
Sergeant Borges claimed that the hardest part was carrying on a normal conversation without checking the door to see if the police had arrived.
I imagined the scene—Sergeant Borges in the acting job of his life is ribbing Seymour the way he always did and Seymour is falling for the trap. What was he thinking, a few beers would mend fences? Didn’t he feel bad when he saw the soldiers he had abandoned, or the other sergeants that he had left to handle his work? The guys were short shifted now, which meant every four days one of the section leaders had to stay on site for a 24 hour rotation. Did he have any remorse?
This time around two people had to watch Seymour until he boarded the plane and left the country. He was stripped of his rank and the guys stuck supervising him hurried to get him outprocessed from the unit and chaptered out of the Army. Seymour didn’t carry himself the same way anymore. He stooped when he moved, the way prisoners do when their wrists are cuffed and their ankles are shackled. He didn’t make eye contact or try to explain or excuse what he did. He did offer me a mumbled apology, and to this day I regret not telling him that I wasn’t the one who needed the apology. All of the other sergeants and soldiers in the platoon were the ones who deserved that.
“He called her from the airport.”
Sergeant Escobedo told us how the story ended. “He called her and told her he was coming back for her.”
It would have been romantic if he wasn’t already married. Sergeant Seymour, husband to an angry wife and father to a five year old son, had thrown away his career and family for a woman he had met during his tour—a woman so captivating that he intended to turn back around for her.
The escorting duties included walking Seymour to the gate of his departing plane and seeing him board. Once you made it that far, you probably had to make sure the gates were shut off and the plane backed away from the terminal before you could truly believe your job was done. Our unit heaved a sigh of relief once the drama had wrapped up. The story wasn’t over yet—Seymour still had to answer to the Army, and to his wife and explain why he thought his crime was justified. Our part, though, our part was over, thanks mostly to the wit of Sergeant Borges.
Epilogue: Several weeks after he was sent home, we received a letter from the Army telling us that Sergeant Seymour was going to be promoted. It was a testament to the slowness of the Army’s administrative process. The guy had been stripped of his rank, and ousted from the Army, yet this piece of paper told an entirely different story. Incredulous, we passed the letter around, had a good laugh, and threw the letter in the trash. To this day I have no idea if Seymour stayed true to his pledge to return to Korea.