Only two weeks after a North Korean soldier defected from the world’s most oppressed country, American Legion National Commander Denise H. Rohan stood just feet way from where the daring escape occurred.
“It just makes you appreciate the freedom that we Americans enjoy every day and sometimes take for granted,” she said following an extensive tour of the Korean peninsula’s demilitarized zone on Nov. 28.
South Korea is the first leg of a Far East tour that Rohan is leading, which includes American Legion Auxiliary National President Diane Duscheck, Auxiliary National Secretary Mary Dubbie Buckler and American Legion Executive Director Verna Jones.
Rohan is visiting U.S. troops, American Legion Family members and allied officials as she visits the sites of some of America’s costliest wars and the home of many current and retired military veterans.
“A strong national defense and support for veterans are two of our four founding pillars,” Rohan said. “Visits to military bases overseas are important for us to be able to deliver on those pillars. We have to see not only the cost of war, but the impact defense budget cuts have had on our military’s ability to defend freedom. Downsizing and relying too heavily on Guard and reserve units should be a concern for us all. We have to make sure that our troops have the strength and resources that they need to do their jobs.”
The delegation was technically in North Korea as they toured the inside of one of the famed blue armistice negotiation buildings that straddle the border of the two Koreas. “You definitely get the feeling that all of your movements are being watched from every angle and that these countries are still at war, with just an armistice in effect,” Rohan said. “The tension there is still very real but the professionalism, seriousness and knowledge of the South Korean and U.S. troops couldn’t be higher.”
An afternoon briefing at the forensic laboratory of MAKRI, the South Korean agency responsible for MIA recovery and identification, served as a reminder that many families still haven’t received closure about the status of those who fought the war more than 64 years later.
“We believe every family should know what happened to their missing loved ones, and we will go to any lengths to find and identify their remains,” said South Korean Army Col. Lee Hak-ki, commander of MAKRI. “We work very closely with DPAA (Defense POW MIA Accounting Agency) and will keep working until we bring our last hero home.”
Although forensic science has improved significantly over recent decades, time and the mortality of battle witnesses and surviving relatives add to the challenge.
“During the Korean War, we didn’t have a lot of records which is why what the lab does today is so important to the identification of remains,” said Dr. Lim Nahyak. “DNA collection of MIA family members is also very important to the process.”
Rohan recalled an observance that she attended last year to mark the 50th year since a U.S. Air Force pilot went missing during the Vietnam War.
“His remains had just been found,” Rohan said of Major George J. Pollin. “It was particularly sad because his mother had died just a few years before the identification. But you could still see the closure and comfort that this identification gave to his brother and sister. The American Legion opens every meeting with the placement of a POW/MIA chair. This makes Resolution 288 even more meaningful.”
The strength of the U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance was also emphasized by U.S. Army Col. Chad Carroll, public affairs director for United Nations Command in Korea. “We have two mottos. We have to be ready to fight tonight and ‘Katchi Kapshida – We go together!’”
Later this week, Rohan’s delegation will visit Okinawa, Japan, and the Department of the Philippines before heading to Hawaii for a memorial observance of the attack on Pearl Harbor.