The Korean War, the Forgotten War, 6.25, call it what you will. The men who served in that bloody conflict were brought to a faraway land they’d never heard of to defend people they’d never met. Young men from 21 nations took up arms to fight against the communist North Korean takeover of the peninsula. This year, I had the honour to meet many of the men who fought to save the place I now call home. This visit was part of a Commonwealth veterans revisitation program organised by the Korean Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs. Veterans Affairs Canada asked me to join their delegation throughout the program as their event photographer. Needless to say, this was a fun-filled but extremely emotional week.
For many of the veterans, this was the first time they had been back to Korea since their service. Eyes were wide seeing the changes. The war had left the nation scarred and with barely a standing building. But, since then, the Korean people have worked tirelessly to bring their torn nation into the modern world and make it the economic powerhouse it is today. Of course, that was mostly seen from the bus windows as we moved to sites that reflected the purpose of the visit more deeply.
We started in Gapyeong, the site of the Commonwealth push against the North. Here we visited the Commonwealth Memorial for a joint service. Then we moved to the Canadian Memorial to present scholarships to a group of Korean children. Before heading back to Seoul, we visited a nearby military base for a Taekwondo demonstration. Wrapping up our first day was a chance for the veterans and their families to try on Korea’s national dress, the Hanbok.
Our second day together was filled with a visit to the National Cemetary of Korea and the Korean War Museum of Seoul. This was a solemn day of reflection and stories of a war long passed. One particularly emotional section was the laying of flowers in front of the names of the fallen. Few words were said as the names of fallen friends were sought out and touched with old hands. Tears were shed and it was a difficult, but meaningful, time to make photographs.
Our final full day together was spent at the DMZ. Here we could overlook North Korea and get a light-hearted introduction to the Korean Army’s modern capabilities. The soldiers entertained their visitors with small tales of their interactions with the North and training. These men had once fought a very real war in this very area. This would wrap up the formal tour for the veterans. But, they still had to experience Seoul’s primary offering before leaving: shopping.
We headed back into Seoul’s Insadong for lunch and a stroll through the souvenir district. It was here, however, that we would experience an unexpected powerful moment. One of the store owners, who spoke perfect English, came over to me and asked if the gentlemen I was with were veterans of the war. When I replied yes, he asked if they would mind him taking a moment of their time. He offered his thanks to them for making his country what it is today and quickly ducked inside a local store to buy beers for all to enjoy. He quickly cleaned up some tables and offered drinks to the veterans. This was the perfect finish to a trip that had been so powerful. Enjoy the rest of the pictures below.
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