An unlikely friendship has blossomed over the last five years between a group of local veterans and young Korean Americans who have taken over upkeep of the Korean War Memorial on the North Shore.
The Korean War Veterans Association of Western Pennsylvania Chapter 74 tended to the memorial until about five years ago as members of the group — which has fewer than 10 active members — became unable to clean the monument and the area around it, which was littered with syringes, cigarette butts and other trash.
That’s when young members of the Korean Association of Greater Pittsburgh stepped in. Volunteers have been cleaning the memorial every Saturday for the last five years as a way to thank the veterans for their service while remaining in touch with their history.
“It’s really a piece of symbolism for the sacrifices during the Korean War and the help we got from America,” said David Uh, 17, a student at North Allegheny Senior High School and president of the Korean War Veterans Memorial maintenance team.
“We just would not be here today if it was not for these veterans,” he said. “So to me and all the other South Koreans, and I’m sure a lot of Americans, this memorial and its symbolism … it has a lot of meaning to us.”
On Nov. 11, members of the Korean Association marched in the annual Veterans Day Parade. Korean War veterans were also in the parade, waving to Downtown crowds from buses.
The young volunteers said their work on the memorial has also helped them to connect with their cultural history.
“Working with other Korean Americans who have not as much of their Korean identity put together, it was good for me to learn more about the history of my people and connect on a deeper level with the Korean community,” said Hanseung Oh, 17, a North Allegheny senior and former president of the maintenance team.
Through their volunteer work, the students have made a connection with the veterans of Chapter 74, which had 650 members at its peak.
“Their efforts have really impacted our lives because if these veterans didn’t do what they did then all of us wouldn’t be here, so that’s really the main reason why I feel compelled to help out with the memorial,” Alexander Kim, 17, said.
When he and the other young members of the Korean Association arrive to clean the memorial, the mess can be overwhelming sometimes.
“It’s quite shocking,” he said. “Whenever we go down to clean the memorial, we see a lot of shocking objects, really. I’ve seen everything from syringes to dead fishes. It’s quite dirty.
“Whenever you see that not everyone respects the memorial the same way that we do, it’s quite disheartening,” Kim said.
MiRan Surh, president of the Korean Association of Greater Pittsburgh, said that she decided to spearhead the project after she attended a lunch for the veterans and visited the memorial. She noticed it lacked any Korean representation.
“I just wanted to do something,” Surh, 62, said. “This is a Korean War veteran’s memorial and there’s no Koreans. I always say if you don’t know where you are coming from, you don’t know where you are going. Knowing your history is important.
“I do this work because it is the right thing to do,” she said. “When the veterans left their home to fight against the communists, they were in their teens. Now they are here in their 90s and our teens are standing by them, with respect and love.”
Surh said the young members of the Korean Association have learned a lot from the veterans they call their “grampas.”
Members of the Korean Veterans Association say the volunteers’ efforts have meant the world.
“We can’t express our thanks enough,” said Chuck Marwood, a 92-year-old Navy veteran in Korea and retired steelworker.
“The good thing about this program is that they’re getting instilled. At school, they don’t do too much teaching about [the Korean War],” Marwood said. “We try to tell them the importance of the Korean War and what it meant to the South Korean people.”
As thanks, Marwood said members of the Korean War Veterans Association banded together to offer an annual college scholarship to one of the volunteers who takes part in the cleaning.
“That is our way, instead of saying thank you, we thought that was something that could really help them,” Marwood said.
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