MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP BARAN, South Korea --
“Attention in the COC! Attention in the COC.” This a common command, a verbal warning order, that members of the Combined Marine Corps Component Command who work on the operations center watch floor became familiar with during exercise Ulchi Freedom Shield 23.
The watch floor hosts a myriad of occupational specialties that come together under the direction of the operations officer, otherwise known as the G-3 OPSO, or in this case the Republic of Korea and United States combined forces operations officer, the C-3 OPSO. Whether a part of the watch floor consistently or someone who routinely comes and goes, everyone plays a significant role in ensuring that operations are running as optimally as possible.
Ulchi Freedom Shield is an annual joint, combined, and interagency exercise in which ROK and U.S. Marine forces participate in the Combined Marine Component Command in support of the Combined Forces Command's Marine warfighting component, which would be established during conflict in Korea.
While everyone has a part to play, there are two people who were highly sought after from the very start of UFS 23, U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Sophia Green, a C2 systems chief and III Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group Unit Transition Coordinator with III MEF Information Group S-6, and ROK Marine Corps Cpl. Hyunkang “Andrew” Kim, Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear Reconnaissance, 1st ROK Marine Division, CBRN Battalion, General Support Company, Reconnaissance Squadron.
During UFS 23, both Green and Kim shifted from the comforts of performing their regular duties; Green served as the Assistant Camp Commandant for the exercise and Kim served as a watch floor translator.
Green, a San Diego, California native, joined the Marine Corps in October 2018. Nearly five years later, she was assigned the responsibility of serving as Assistant Camp Commandant for III MEF during a very demanding exercise that required exercise support planning, handling, and identifying lodging, messes, allocation of forces, and sustainment of forces amongst many other things. What is more impressive is the fact that she fulfilled her duties in a foreign country.
Before we go any further, let’s rewind the hands of time to see what inspired Green to serve in the Marine Corps in the first place. According to Green, the book The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien sparked her intellectual curiosity. In high school, war literature was a predominant subject in her English class which ultimately compelled her to research the Reserve Officer Training Corps program.
Her father was in the Army Medical Corps, and she originally thought about following in his footsteps, but several of her friends recommended pursuing a career in the Marine Corps instead. Knowing that she had a desire to see the world and learn new languages, we can now fast-forward to the present where Green says, “My peers who were previously stationed in Okinawa told me that I would love it and they were correct. I was originally set to be in Okinawa for only six months, but it has exceeded my expectations, so I decided to extend my orders to a year.”
As a reservist, Green could have decided to finish her obligated time and return to her civilian life where she works as a systems engineer at Marine Corps Tactical Systems Support Activity on Camp Pendleton. Extending her III MEF orders in Okinawa provided her the opportunity to participate in UFS 23.
Participating in UFS 23 brought Green to Korea for the first time. A bit different from her civilian responsibilities, she facilitated receiving, staging, onward movement and integration of incoming personnel, coordinated with various units, supported resource allocation, personnel management, logistical support and troubleshooting, and ensured safety and security protocols were being followed.
While Green demonstrated her ability to manage complex logistics and ensure the well-being of personnel and equipment throughout the exercise, her position was not without challenges that she has had to navigate with her ROK and other U.S. counterparts. Weather conditions, namely typhoons, led to delayed planning and movement of personnel and equipment. Green said teamwork, especially with her ROK counterparts, is what helped her, and others resolve matters quickly.
Another area that introduced friction with planning efforts, and in turn was a daily challenge, was dealing with the language barrier. Enter Kim.
Kim, a Daegu, South Korea native, who served as a translator on the watch floor of the operations center during UFS 23, didn’t always speak English; it is his second language. At age six, Kim’s family moved to Berkeley, California, for one year. When Kim arrived in the U.S., he didn’t speak or understand English.
He started to learn the language during kindergarten and through a variety of other methods such as a tutor his mother hired, family friends, and watching sports. His tutor visited him at his house twice a week and sessions were focused on English material that he could use in everyday conversations. Such skills would come in handy for Kim, who became a regular international traveler at an early age.
Throughout Kim’s academic career, he attended elementary, middle, and high school, as well as college, in both Korea and the U.S. This experience has aptly prepared him to support translation services for the ROK Marine Corps.
Kim joined the ROK Marine Corps in 2022, just after completing his sophomore year of college at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. “I chose the ROK Marine Corps because I deeply admired the spirit and value they carry with pride. I always wanted to be one of them, and it has been too long since I have had the idea of joining the ROK Marine Corps, so it almost felt natural for me to join,” Kim said.
Although Kim’s military occupational specialty is CBRN reconnaissance, which consists of him riding in an armored vehicle that supports detection of CBRN agents and identifying safe areas for follow up elements to position themselves to carry on with their mission, one of Kim’s staff sergeants recommended that he apply to become a translator for UFS 23.
Kim applied and was selected as a final qualifier for the position. After a series of rigorous vocabulary, translation, and interpretation tests, and a waiting period of two weeks, Kim was made aware of his selection to support the combined exercise and provide translation support to the Marines from III MEF.
Kim was excited to be selected as a translator and stressed the importance of ROK and U.S. Marines training together. “Combined training is essential because we share the same goal: peace in the East Asian region as well as in Korean peninsula. We both fight with all our will to protect democracy and it is crucial for both sides to work with each other, considering the unprecedented threats posed to the democracy as anti-democratic entities have been strengthening their power,” he said.
Supporting UFS 23 was Kim’s first assignment as a translator. He explained his experience translating for the combined Communication Strategy and Operations and Public Affairs section, or C-7, the preponderance of personnel being ROK-U.S. field grade officers, “Before the exercise, I was expecting the high-level officers to be very unapproachable. However, when the exercise began, they tried very hard to make me feel comfortable so that I could be more focused on translation and interpretation, and I appreciate that.”
While Kim was one of more than 20 translators assigned to support UFS 23, his services were sought after by not only the section he was assigned to directly support, but by many other sections on the watch floor. Although Kim previously worked with a few U.S. Marines, he stated, “It was nothing like this exercise.”
Kim prides himself on being the bridge between military leaders and their troops by supporting clear communication so that forces can execute their orders appropriately. “I genuinely take great pride in myself translating the contents so that both sides have a thorough understanding of each other’s words,” Kim said.
While Kim is aware that he has helped leaders communicate and learn from each other, it is not lost on him that he too has learned a great deal from participating in the exercise and stepping out of supporting his regular MOS. “The concepts in COMMSTRAT-PA were very new and sometimes confusing. However, my U.S. counterparts were fully aware of that and gave their best to ensure my understanding of those concepts so that translation and interpretation could be more accurate and seamless,” he said.
Both Green and Kim were highly sought after for a variety of reasons. Each of these non-commissioned officers fulfilled vital roles that with utmost certainty were a value added to ensuring members of both the ROK and U.S. staffs got the most out of UFS 23.
Kim said that he’s noticed that the bond between the two Marine Corps’ is tighter than sometimes depicted in the media and is proud to be serving and working on the combined staff, especially during 2023 as it marks the 70th anniversary of the alliance. He said he looks forward to supporting the next large-scale ROK and U.S. Marine Corps exercise, Freedom Shield 24, next year and will study even more to prepare to support translation requirements.
Although it is undetermined whether Green will be back to support next year’s FS 24 exercise, her sentiment echoes that of Kim as it pertains to ROK and U.S. Marine Corps forces working together. “The ROK Marine Corps’ operational efficiency is impressive. Working in their home country has allowed for unique opportunities of joint learning and cultural exchange. It has offered a platform for robust bilateral cooperation, which highlights the strength of our longstanding alliance.”
Ulchi Freedom Shield is designed to strengthen the combined defense posture and Alliance response capabilities based on scenarios that reflect diverse threats within the security environment. This creates an opportunity for ROK and III MEF Marines to train together while conducting the live, virtual, and constructive exercise events that reaffirming the U.S.’s ironclad commitment to the defense of the ROK.