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Better late than never

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Eric Burks
  • 7th Air Force Public Affairs

In a few weeks, I will have reached the end of my second one-year assignment to Korea… thirteen years after my first short tour at Osan.

The first time around, I was a relatively younger staff sergeant, with a daughter entering first grade. After two years at my previous duty station, I was already burnt out at work, and a short tour offered my best chance for a follow-on assignment to a more desirable situation.

It ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve made in my Air Force career. Once I arrived at Osan, I loved it here. There was a high operations tempo, but an important mission, plus I had great co-workers and supportive leadership… something that hadn’t always felt the case at other assignments.

I’d always wanted to visit Europe, but honestly, I didn’t know a whole lot about Korea before I arrived. I was amazed by how beautiful the country was and how much there was to see and do here.

I enjoy hiking, so I soon made it a goal to visit all 20 national parks in the ROK. These were the days before modern smartphones with 5G, so I usually would pick a destination I wanted to visit, find a guide to the park’s trails, and plot out my route with a physical map.

Two weeks before I returned CONUS for my follow-on assignment, I achieved my goal and checked off the final box… Gyeongju National Park. As the country’s only historical national park, it was last on my list to visit. Rather than numerous hiking trails, it consisted largely of historical sites around Gyeongju City.

Last summer, before I returned to Osan, my daughter had just graduated from high school, and I was approaching 20 years of service. I volunteered for my present assignment because I had such great memories of my first tour here that I’d always hoped to return for at least one more year before retirement.

And after two years at my previous duty station, I was already burnt out at work, and a short tour offered my best chance for a follow-on assignment to a more desirable situation. History tends to repeat itself.

While I was outprocessing, one night I went back through an archive of photos from 2010-11 and I noticed something. There were extremely few photos featuring humans, or really anything to give context as to where the photos were taken. They could have been from a random coffee table book, or a desktop background collection of scenic landscapes from anywhere… or nowhere, if you want to factor Artificial Intelligence into the equation.

This time around, I decided to make a more concerted effort to explore Korean culture and heritage.
Or at least learn a few phrases beyond “Annyeong-haseyo” and "Katchi Kapshida!"

There are many ways to do this, as most U.S. military installations in the ROK offer a variety of choices for language classes, cultural experiences, and sight-seeing trips across the country. Some are completely free, while others offer discounted rates. Additionally, there are many commercial ventures offering even more trips and programs, both on and off the peninsula.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in the U.S. Forces Korea Korean Cultural Immersion Program, an educational program funded by the ROK government for U.S. servicemembers, United Nations Command troops, federal employees, and dependents assigned to the ROK.

The intent of the program is two-fold, according to their Combined Forces Command booklet. First, during the program participants are immersed into Korean history, culture, and traditions allowing them to understand and appreciate the country they are defending. Second, the Korean Cultural Immersion Program is a ROK-U.S. Alliance building tool between the U.S. Department of Defense and the ROK Ministry of National Defense.

Last year, 2,327 people participated in 12 trips across 18 ROK provinces. Since its inception in 2020, nearly 7,000 people have engaged in the program.

Our three-day trip started with a visit to the Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju, which belongs to the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism and was designated as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage site in 1995. The temple was initially built in 528 AD, the year after Buddhism was officially accepted by the Silla kingdom.

The next stop was Daereungwon, where we observed ancient tombs dating to the Silla period. One of the highlights was exploring inside Cheonmachong, a large tomb that was excavated in 1973 and featured burial artifacts.

We then made our way to Busan, where we checked into our hotel for the evening. It was a Tuesday night, but the city’s outdoor market was still bustling with activity and offered many different types of food to sample. The beach was alive as well, with sand being sculpted for the annual Haeundae Beach Sand Festival.

The next morning, after an international buffet breakfast, our group boarded the bus to visit the nearby Haedong Yonggungsa Temple. Founded in 1376, the temple is one of three “great holy sites” in Korea and is serenely located on the shoreline of the East Sea coast. The complex offered a variety of shrines, Buddhas, and even statues of the 12 animals of the Korean zodiac.

We then went back into Busan and participated in a flower laying ceremony at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery. Established in 1951 as the only UN cemetery in the world, the grounds were a solemn reminder of those who sacrificed their lives during the Korean War, which remains at armistice to this day. Servicemembers from 11 nations found their final resting place here.

Our last stop for the day was the Geoje Panorama Cable Car, which can accommodate up to 2,000 passengers per hour and offers stunning 360 degree views of the Hallyeosudo coast and nearby islands. After enjoying the vista, we checked into our hotel in Geoje to get some rest before the final day of our trip.

After another buffet breakfast in the morning, we were on our way to venture out to sea and back in time to Hansando Island, located in the middle of Hallyeohaesang National Park. The isle served as the headquarters of Admiral Yi Sun-sin, who defeated an invading Japanese naval fleet in 1592 during the Battle of Hansan. Our group boarded a ferry for the island and toured the Jeseungdang Shrine, which commemorates Yi’s achievements and is regarded as a symbol of Korean patriotism and national defense.

When we arrived back at Osan that evening, I had a much better understanding and appreciation for Korean culture and history than I had gained from any of my solo hiking trips. Not that those were bad, but if you’re looking for some greater perspective, the Korean Cultural Immersion Program has a lot to offer for only a small investment of your time and resources.

Costs such as transportation, lodging, meals and entrance fees are covered. Space is limited on these tours, so contact your leadership, your unit Public Affairs office or the USFK Cultural Immersion Program team via email at to learn how to sign-up. Additional information on the program can be found at