The Margin of Others 3

First Words/Lasting Impressions


Chaplain (Colonel) John Kowsky, a decorated Viet Nam veteran, wore thick “coke bottle lens” glasses, and he was seated behind his desk.  My first—and lasting impression of him as a jovial chaplain—was when he taught at the US Army Chaplain Center and School at Ft Hamilton in 1970.  He taught something about the “chaplain’s image.”

His first words, as he peered at me through his thick lenses, were six words:  “Decker, can you run three miles?”  Not a word about remembering me from chaplains’ school or chit-chat about the trip over.  He got right to it:  three miles was the 2nd Infantry Division’s morning run requirement for all soldiers assigned to the division.  Unfit soldiers were at risk and some actually died from the exertion.

I said, “Yes, sir.”

His comment, laced with the chiding innuendo of his beloved Brooklyn, was, “Don’t overdo it.  I don’t want to have to write any letters home to your wife!”

He then said, “There are 3 things you need to know.  Number one, watch the booze.  If you drink, don’t overdo it.

Number two, no broads.

Number three, if you’ve got anything to do with the chaplain’s fund, do it by the book!  Any questions?”

I said, “No sir!”

He said, “See you ‘round!”  And that completed my in-processing with the senior chaplain in US Forces Korea.

What I had received from Chaplain Kowsky–although I didn’t know it at the time–was the chaplaincy’s standard lecture on the three killers for a military career, encoded “SAM,” for sex, alcohol, and money.  Everyone, sooner or later, had to deal with “SAM,” and I was to learn that unit ministry teams were not exempt from the allures of SAM—in the Land of the Morning Calm—or elsewhere.

The first words from the Commander of the 2nd Infantry Division Support Command (DISCOM) were also unexpected and unforgettable.  Chaplain Ford G’Segner—whom I was replacing after his year long unaccompanied tour—took me in to meet the man.  Ford said something like, “Sir, I’d like to have you meet Tom Decker….”  The Commander looked up from his desk to eye me, and said to Ford, “Get him a green tee shirt.”  That too was the end of the discussion.  The “green tee shirt” came at the time when the Army was transitioning from white—which I still wore from my time at the CONUS unit at Fort Carson.  In the wisdom of the The green tees were not available except at overseas stations.

My first meeting with the Division Chaplain was also memorable in its brevity.  His first words to me were something to the effect of, “The lawn at the Happy Valley Chapel needs cutting.  Get it done.”  His abrupt manner was not what I had expected, and I probably muttered something like, “Yes, sir, I’ll take care of it.”  If it was the first word, it was also the last, until I met him again some years after he was out of the Army and working on the social services staff at 121 Hospital in Yongsan, where I was the senior chaplain in the USFK’s 18th Medical Command.  I thought I recognized the name—and his face—even though 16 years had elapsed.  He was most cordial and happy to meet again.  The reality was that he—thankfully—probably didn’t remember the extremely green chaplain at Camp Casey from 1977.  In the ensuing years, I settled on the probability that he was in a different place in his life than from our first very curt encounter.  Life’s circumstances allow the wheels of change to move all of us on.  The lawn of the Happy Valley Chapel—long since cut –was no longer in the picture.  We both had crossed many bridges in life—thankfully—and it was only necessary to learn from the past rather than to replay the grief.  #


Korea, 2nd Infantry Division


aka “the Ville.”

The hardship tour

was one day

from over,

but it had not

been so hard

with a temporary wife,

his yobo, available

for the hard times,

for which he received

a dollar a day extra

for overseas duty,

and it was

his last night in Korea,

his last night with his yobo

close by, in his arms,

his sweetheart,

beside him,

and his sweet dreams

of his permanent wife

and children stateside,

soon leaving for

the airport to pick him up;

it’d been a long year,

and there was a chill

in the air, so

“Whaddya say, huh, yobo,

you light heater, huh?

And they crawled down

beneath the thick, richly

embroidered bed cover,

bought with his money

from the Second Market,

and his yobo

—that is to say

his temporary wife—

slipped the cover

off the ondol heater.*


they went

to sleep together,

one last time, with

no wake-up call,

no flight,

no return,

no reunion,

no problems,

no “Good morning, yobo!”

no tears at the bus stop

for the ride to Osan

for the stateside flight, and

no one last greeting of the dawn

in the Land of the Morning Calm,

and the Army ruled it, “line of duty.”  #


*Ondol is a manufactured compressed charcoal brick used for cooking and heating.







To the




died in a

brief vehicular



on the Main

Supply Route

just as it

comes into


about a mile from

the front gate,

when he

went to sleep

in the front seat

of the jeep,

and it swerved

in traffic, and his

body lurched out

of the jeep’s open door

swinging his head

into the cargo of phone poles

on the back end of

a single parked truck,

killing him instantly,

a merciful but

inglorious end

to compulsory

military service

to the good ol’

ROK ’n USA.  #



Korea/2nd ID/DMZ


August 14, 1977. Due to a navigational error, a Chinook CH-47 accidentally flew over the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) into North Korea and landed to inspect the damage. Apparently, the crew did not realize that they had sustained ground fire, and thought that the problem was mechanical in nature. When a truck with North Korean soldiers approached, the pilot decided to take off and escape. The North Koreans shot down the fleeing aircraft, killing three crewmen in the subsequent crash. The copilot survived and was taken prisoner, and returned to US control after 57 hours of captivity. Bodies of the three other crewmembers were returned on August 18. This was the sixth US aircraft shot down since the armistice. (Taken from an online source, the Aviation Safety Net and other internet sources.)


The news reports all

sound so matter of fact,

how many of these, how long did it take,

who survived, who didn’t,


and—in this case—

6 down

since the armistice.

Any cub reporter


knows the 5 Ws

of good reporting.

The Division

Chaplain also


had a report

when he returned

from the repatriation

of remains on the Z,


gesturing with his

hands, maybe 3 to 4

feet, the size

of the boxes

that held

our soldiers.

He didn’t have

to say,





His tears did

the talking

for all of us.  #