The unpredictable leader of North Korea touts his country’s nuclear ability and tests ballistic missiles on a regular basis, prompting concern in South Korea and elsewhere on the international stage.
Just across the 38th Parallel — which separates both countries — waits a U.S. Army major general from Jacksonville Beach with a highly trained division of 12,000 American and South Korean troops if Kim Jong-un gets aggressive.
American soldiers are training with gas masks and live ammunition in mountainous terrain alongside members of the Republic of Korea’s Army in case of a crisis requiring immediate action.
The North Korean missile tests that seem a world away for most Americans are happening just over the border for members of the U.S. Army’s 2nd Infantry Division stationed on the southern end of the Korean peninsula.
They are always ready to fight if the situation calls for retaliation, and constant preparation is imperative for the division’s success.
That’s been the reality for Maj. Gen. Ted Martin since taking over command of the division in April 2015. The 56-year-old Jacksonville Beach native has been immersed in South Korean culture for a little more than two years as he’s been training soldiers just below the Korean Demilitarized Zone.
He’s been leading the ROK-U.S. Combined Division — the first division comprised of both American and South Korean soldiers — with cooperation from a combined staff made up of both nations’ representatives.
“We don’t practice stability operations. We don’t do nation building. We are preparing our forces to fight and win if the unthinkable happens,” said Martin in an interview this week as his assignment approaches its end next month.
He said Korea is the most “intense” place he’s served in his 34-year Army career and compared the local mindset to that of Americans during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
“We train like our life depends on it here,” Martin said.
Intense training is nothing new to Martin, who previously served as commander of the operations group at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif., and as the 73rd commandant of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.
Martin has been stationed at Camp Red Cloud in Uijeongbu, South Korea, since taking over control of the division in 2015, but he said he spent the first 90 days inspecting potential invasion routes to help understand the complicated terrain along the border.
“We built our training around that to give soldiers who have primarily been fighting in the desert experience in fighting with a lot of vertical terrain around them,” Martin said.
There are 12,000 troops in the 2nd Infantry Division/ROK-U.S. Combined Division, according to the Army.
Martin said his staff includes 57 Republic of Korea officers, including a brigadier general and a colonel who serves as chief of staff. They work side by side with U.S. officers to be sure everyone involved is familiar with all the mission command systems in case of a conflict.
“If we have to fight, I have a distinct advantage because it allows us rapid coordination with Korean Army units,” Martin said.
South Korean armed forces have worked with the United States to maintain peace with their neighbors to the north since the Korean War in the 1950s, but this is the closest collaboration ever, Martin said.
“I do not know why it took about 50 years on the peninsula before we got around to combining this division,” he said.
Communications staff from the U.S. Army and the Department of Defense would not comment on the importance of the division, choosing to give Martin a chance to speak based on his own experience in command.
The U.S. Department of the Army said it’s complicated to calculate the amount of funding funneled toward the division since it receives a wide variety of military equipment and machinery taken from a larger pool of Pentagon funding.
The 2nd Infantry Division is the only active division in the U.S. Army with an entire battalion dedicated to chemical warfare. The 23rd Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High-Yield Explosives Battalion is the largest of its kind in the U.S. Army, according to the division’s communications staff.
“We know that the North Koreans have a very large stockpile of chemical and biological weapons, and their doctrine is if we move to crisis there’s a very high probability that those chemical weapons will be employed,” Martin said.
He said soldiers are given protective masks as soon as they report for duty, and within a month they use the first-class equipment with complete confidence.
“They will train to make sure they can get that mask on in nine seconds,” Martin said of his soldiers.
Family members are also outfitted with protective gear, and Martin pointed out his previous chief of staff had three daughters who each had their own child-sized gas mask.
Martin said the military education system in South Korea is similar to the United States, and many of the officers he works with attended school in America. He said he’s benefited from the exposure to different military methods and especially the differences in equipment.
“Their division commander has fired my tank and I’ve fired his tank, and we’ve agreed to disagree as to which one is the best,” Martin said.
The cultural differences don’t end there.
Martin said he’s grown to love a Korean dish called “leaf and beef” that’s made with pickled sesame leaves. He said he was skeptical at first, but now he doesn’t know how he’ll live without it.
But the seafood in Korea doesn’t live up to the fresh catches he’s used to back home.
“There’s nothing better than going down to Mayport and getting 10 pounds of shrimp off a shrimp boat. I don’t think they can compete with Florida seafood,” Martin said of the Koreans.
He is one of four brothers raised in a military family in Jacksonville Beach. He said he was named after his uncle, who along with Martin’s father, served in the Korean War. Martin said that’s a real big deal to the people of South Korea, a nation that continues to memorialize the heroes of that war to this day.
“Their gratitude for Americans fighting on their behalf, it knows no bounds,” Martin said. “It’s genuine. It’s heartfelt.”
He will take some time off next month to return to Jacksonville Beach, where he plans to spend time with his mother, who is in hospice care. After that he will report to the Pentagon where he plans to provide details of his experience as the first commander of the ROK-U.S. Combined Division where he was always within striking distance of the North Koreans.
“To put it in perspective, the distance between my headquarters and where they test the nuclear weapons is about the same distance from Washington, D.C., to New York City,” Martin said.
He said it was the most exciting post of his military career in the most volatile corner of the globe he’s ever seen.