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Saturday, December 9, 2023

Elderly couple travels 40,000 miles to honor Korean War veterans

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Sungyeol Koo, 80, and Changhwa Kim, 77, visited Six Mile Elementary School in South Carolina to present a donation and a plaque in honor of Private First Class Charles Hayward Barker to Principal Melissa Terry on September 19. [Courtesy of Six Mile Elementary School]

For this elderly Korean American couple, honoring Korean War veterans is a journey of heart and miles, taking them to elementary schools nationwide.

They aim for the hometowns of the fallen heroes. In their mission, Kook Yul Kim, 80, and Chang Hwa Kim, 77, travel to these hometowns, gifting books and donations to local elementary school libraries in the veterans’ names.

Their three-year-old project intends to memorialize the fallen and impart the profound history of the Korean War to students. Since initiating the effort with Readsboro Central School in Vermont in October 2020, they have made contributions to 33 schools across 33 states. Most recently, they visited Six Mile Elementary School in South Carolina on September 19.

Currently, they’re on a 28-day tour visiting hometowns of fallen soldiers, with stops planned in Florida, Arkansas, and Kentucky after their visit to Six Mile Elementary School.

Koo detailed their approach in an interview with the Korea Daily: “We’re meticulously examining the list of fallen soldiers, and if someone touches our hearts or has a poignant story, we’re selecting one individual from each state and visiting elementary schools in their respective hometowns.” He added, “Upon reaching Kentucky, we’ll be at our 36th mark, and our goal is to span all 50 states by 2024.”

An example of their tribute led them to the Six Mile neighborhood of the Six Mile Elementary School. This was the home to PFC Charles Hayward Barker, then 18. Barker, from the U.S. Army’s 7th Infantry Division, heroically gave his life during the Battle of Pork Chop Hill, a fierce engagement against North Korean forces near Cheondeok Mountain in Yeoncheon County, Gyeonggi Province.

Koo reflected, “Upon researching PFC Barker’s narrative, I was moved to learn that he secretly enlisted for the Korean War at the tender age of 15, without informing his parents.” He added, “I felt an overwhelming need to express gratitude to him, given his ultimate sacrifice for Korea.”

Each school visit entails three offerings: a plaque commemorating the fallen, a book detailing the history of the Korean War, and a donation of $5,033. For the couple, interacting with elementary students and emphasizing the historical significance of the Korean War is the highlight of their program. By the end of their Kentucky trip, they will have generously donated a sum of $181,088 to 36 elementary school libraries, all in honor of the fallen.

Koo and Kim launched the 6.25 Foundation in 2019. Koo recounted the foundation’s inception, stating, “On a Nepal trip, I engaged in dialogue with some second-generation Korean American students. To my dismay, they were oblivious about the Korean War. That spurred me to establish the foundation to enlighten them.” He added, “The Korean War, often referred to as the ‘Forgotten War,’ would have had a different outcome, devoid of the liberties we cherish today, had it not been for the United States.”

Since the foundation’s conception, the couple has annually organized the “Liberty Walk” on every June 25. For every mile traversed, donations pour in. Supporters encompass family, friends, neighbors, and alumni. In a landmark move, 2022 saw the event’s inauguration in South Korea, with supporters and U.S. troops walking in unison from the War Memorial in Yongsan, central Seoul, past the U.S. Eighth Army base, culminating at the National Museum of Korea.

Recollecting the foundation’s early days, Koo remarked, “The inaugural Liberty Walk coincided with the 70th anniversary of the Korean War, raising $5,033.” He continued, “This sum has since become our staple donation amount. The foundation thrives on the benevolence of varied sponsors and our personal contributions.”

Koo and Kim personally drive to schools earmarked for donations. Owing to the rural locations of most schools, road travel trumps flying. Their journey crisscrosses the nation, from the east coast to the west, including destinations like California. Their odyssey so far has racked up over 40,000 miles.

Koo, a Gyeonggi High School (57th class) and Yonsei University (1965) alumnus, immigrated to the U.S. in 1967 and subsequently embarked on a computer software enterprise in New York City.

The couple nurtures another aspiration – the baton pass of the Liberty Walk to the succeeding generation. Koo expressed, “The meticulous planning for each school visit, spanning approximately a year, would be enriched if the youth joined our ranks.” He emphasized, “Post the conclusion of our all-states mission, we ardently hope that the youth take the torch forward for the Liberty Walk.”

The Korean War witnessed the martyrdom of more than 37,000 American soldiers. A staggering 7,000 remain Missing in Action.

For this reason, the Liberty Walk must go on.

BY YEOL JANG    [jang.yeol@koreadaily.com]