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US Army Runs Hotline to Assist Abandoned Families in South Korea

Jason Strother | Dongducheon, north of Seoul 23 June 2010

Sixty years after the start of the Korean War, the United States keeps more than 28,000 troops in South Korea. While in the country, some soldiers get married or have children. But when they leave, their families do not always go with them. The U.S. army, however, is trying to make it easier for these so-called abandoned spouses to get help.

The U.S. Second Infantry Division stands guard against any attack from North Korea. Many of their bases, like Camp Casey and Camp Nimble, lie near the 38th parallel, which has divided the Korean peninsula for more than 60 years.

The military long considered this region unsafe and most soldiers were not allowed to bring their families with them or were unmarried. Often soldiers built relationships with women they meet off base. Chief of Army Community Services for Division One Linda Hough said as some soldiers transfer out of South Korea, they leave behind women they married or had children with.

"There was a concern about the number of spouses that were here by themselves needing help, and they found that a significant number of them were foreign-born," Hough said.

By foreign-born, Hough means the women are neither American nor South Korean. Often, they come from southeast Asia or other countries and work in bars or nightclubs near the bases. Many are illegal immigrants and have little legal protection in South Korea.

Matet is from the Philippines, and met an American soldier while working in Dongducheon, near the bases.
She soon got pregnant and now has a nine-month old son. But the soldier ended their relationship and she said he has not helped provide for their child.

Matet said she knows many other women who have had the same experience.

"Their husbands, their boyfriends abandoned them, they abandoned them, no contact anymore, they live in the Philippines now, [with] no support," said Matet.

Faced with complaints from women like Matet, the U.S. army in 2008 began a service to help them by setting up a hotline, the first of its kind worldwide that offers assistance in several languages, including Russian and Tagalog.

To qualify as an abandoned spouse, a woman does not have to be married to a U.S. serviceman.

Hough says the army has for years offered assistance to women and children who were left behind, but there was always a lot of red tape to cut through. The hotline is a more direct way to reach military or civilian organizations that can offer legal or financial support.

"We help advocate for those family members, saying this is a legitimate concern," said Hough. "Sometimes we have to spell it out to some of the organizations that are helping, we might have to say that this is at the point where we need some intervention, and we need it now, we can't wait for them to get an appointment 10 or 15 days later."

Hough adds that often soldiers do not want to leave behind the women. Sometimes it is difficult to get visas or file other paperwork the women need to travel with the soldier.

Some historians blame past military policies for the creating abandoned families.

Susan Zeiger, author of "Entangled Alliances; Foreign War Brides and American Soldiers in the Twentieth Century," said U.S. immigration and military policies were used to disrupt marriages and keep certain women out of the country.

"Marriage law and the racial basis of marriage law, which continued right up through the mid-1960s, anti-miscegenation laws, were very frequently employed to keep groups of women out," Zeiger said. "And so was the so-called "Oriental exclusion" feature of American immigration, which was around for decades and decades and decades."

Those laws were ended years ago. Now, according to Zeiger, the U.S. military has become more family friendly to prevent some of the problems that arise from stationing troops in foreign countries.

"Bringing in American wives and trying to establish families on bases was really an important strategy and that was one thing that was done on U.S. military bases in Germany during the Cold War. Because there were alarmingly high rates of venereal disease, prostitution, pregnancy and abandoned wives, abandoned children, it was really looking like a big mess," Zeiger said.

At Camp Casey, for instance, more U.S.soldiers are allowed to bring their families.

As for Matet, she found out when she was six months pregnant that her former boyfriend had a wife. Matet says she also learned that he will soon transfer to Germany.

"I want, you know, legal child support," said Matet. "Because once he will leave the country, and I know its kind of hard to contact him, because I find so hard to contact him while he is here in Korea, and how much more when he will not be here, so that's it."

Matet just heard about the Army hotline and says she will call it soon, before she and her baby are left behind.

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