The 3 Feet That Changed My Life

I’m going to take a bit of a break from my fantasy worlds and my frivolity, and be serious for just a moment.  With the current situation in Korea and all the rhetoric being thrown around, I thought I would give just a brief glimpse that I received in the Land of the Morning Calm.

Back in 2005, I was in the middle of my first tour of duty in Korea with the Air Force.  One of the few things I absolutely had to do while I was there was take a tour to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separated North Korea and South Korea.  It was an experience I was extremely excited to have the opportunity to do, and I had planned around my work schedule to make it happen.

I didn’t sleep well the night before we left.  Maybe I was over anxious, or maybe I was just used to the midnight schedule I had been working during our exercises the previous week.  Either way, at 7am when our bus pulled out, I was wide awake.  As the night retreated from the coming dawn, the land was still covered in a thick haze, which turned into snow the further north we traveled.  I could imagine the servicemen trudging through similar conditions during the war in 1950-53, coloring the snow with their blood.

The closer we came to the border, the more the reality of the situation dawned on me.  I saw rows of barbed wire fences and guard posts stretching across the landscape.  10 foot thick concrete barriers sat above the roads, ready to be dropped at a moment’s notice to act as obstacles for invading tanks.

The bus continued on with the tour until we reached the Joint Security Area.  Here we received a briefing regarding how to act as we entered the DMZ, and we signed a release stating that the tour “will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”

All this was fine and good.  I had expected as much.  But nothing could prepare me for what would come when we actually reached Panmunjom, the truce village.  You may have seen pictures on TV or the web.  This is the area where North and South soldiers stand across from one another, their countries joined at this place by a couple of blue, nondescript buildings.

What you may not notice in the images is a long concrete slab that runs between the buildings at the exact halfway point of the long walls.  This is the Military Demarcation Line – a real, physical dividing line between these two countries.  To cross this barrier could literally mean death.

As part of the tour we went into one of the blue buildings and gathered around the table in the middle of the room.  I stood at the far end – three feet inside North Korean territory!  And though I knew that I could simply step onto the other side of the table with ease, I also knew that at that moment there were those in North Korea who would have given anything for the freedom to make that decision.  And that there were those, like the NK guards who watched us, who would do all they could to stop them.

Some might say that it was silly of me to feel the way I did in that room, after all I was only 3 feet over the line.  But that one moment, those 3 feet, had an impact on me that I can never forget.  I can never again take for granted the freedoms that I have.  I have been on the other side, I have seen the literal line in the sand, and I have felt the emptiness of freedom’s absence.

Freedom is not free.  There are those who have it and take it for granted.  There are those who yearn and hunger for it.  There are those who seek to take it away from others.  Some have paid the ultimate price, given their last full measure to uphold it.  Others continue to stand vigilant as sentinels on freedom’s last outpost.  For me, the cost was a $25 ticket to a plain blue building in the middle of the DMZ.

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About pbartles

I am a husband, a father, a member of the US Air Force, and and artist. I enjoy drawing worlds of the fantastic (fantasy, superhero, comic, etc) and seeing an illustration pop from the page out of nothing.
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