“B." “C." Never have two simple letters carried such emotional baggage. When you hear “Bravo," you may be reminded of a time of celebration, a time where a group of people are cheering someone on, after the recent Olympics for example. If someone says “Charlie," you may think of Charlie Brown or Charlie Chaplain.
Yet, in the military world, those words carry a very different weight. In 1927, the first internationally recognized phonetic alphabet was adopted, but it did not find its way into the military world until World War II. After shaky use in WWII, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) made necessary changes to the alphabet and then adopted it in 1965. From then on, within the military, the letters “B” and “C” were simply Bravo and Charlie.
I had heard “Bravo” and “Charlie” in military contexts prior to my move to South Korea, but never fully appreciated what they meant. For much of the military, Bravo and Charlie are tied to force protection conditions (FPCON), based on a perceived threat to a base or place where the military is concentrated. But coming into South Korea, I would soon have a different understanding of those two words. My very freedom would depend on those two words.
I first arrived in Korea from the U.S. to a world not as much concerned with FPCON, but HPCON, or Health Protection Condition. The military uses HPCON to enact protocol for public health emergencies. Our HPCON status in July 2020 was Bravo. In HPCON Bravo (specific to U.S military and their families in Korea), restrictions are very limited. We can eat out at restaurants off-post, We can attend school in person, and we can do activities off-base. My sister can take cello lessons off installation and my brother can practice taekwondo. The only major limitations were to specific areas that we could or could not visit in South Korea, and how many people could gather together in public, but at least we could still gather. Shortly before school started, we entered HPCON Charlie based on increased local COVID positive cases inside of Korea.
The freedoms we once enjoyed in Bravo were promptly snatched away from us. We could no longer leave base except for essentials such as grocery shopping or doctor appointments, we could no longer eat out, and we could no longer gather together in sizable groups. The feeling of isolation I had just escaped from living in Pennsylvania had come back to haunt me once more. I started my junior year of high school in my own house, alone. Thankfully, I wasn't alone for long. I made a handful of friends and together we made the most out of Charlie. We all gathered together during our lunch break to eat and spent time with each other. They made Charlie bearable. Thank you.
Besides online school, Charlie also quickly became synonymous with dread, restrictions, cancelled Christmas parties and snowboarding adventures, and delayed or cancelled sports seasons. As COVID numbers would increase, I quickly became acquainted with the constant COVID updates hosted over Facebook. These updates were dubbed the “Mike and Benny Show”, referencing the garrison leadership of Camp Humphreys. As each show was broadcasted, many tired soldiers and their spouses would take to the live chat and constantly comment, “Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!” or “Please no Charlie”. It was almost as if they thought their chanting would change the garrison commander’s mind. We were all desperate!
We were constantly reminded of our Charlie status as each public building shined a LED sign that proclaimed, in glaring red letters, the level of HPCON we were currently in. During Charlie, the amount of people allowed into the Commissary or Exchange was heavily limited. Lines would form outside. Employees could be seen tapping devices to constantly document the amount of people that were in a building at any given time. Certain gates were closed, restricting access to base to just a few entrances.
Thankfully, we left Charlie in exchange for Bravo+ in early November. Bravo! Finally, an applause for not being in Charlie, we pat ourselves on the back that we did such a good job at keeping the virus out that they let us have our freedom again. We could once again return to this new sense of normal. I could finally attend school in person. Cello and Taekwondo were back on the schedule. We could go out to eat at our favorite sushi restaurant. However, it did not last long.
COVID cases began to climb across Korea again, and town halls became more frequent. During the virtual town halls, people would still comment “Bravo!” or type in sad face emojis with the word Charlie. The cases continued to climb. You could hear neighbors and friends saying “Charlie is coming!” Just the mere whisper of Charlie spread fear throughout Camp Humphreys. Charlie came back at the end of the first semester of school on December 17th and lingered, like an unwelcome guest until the end of February.
Bravo means more than applause. It means freedom. It means adventure. It means connection. It means choices. I could never name my son Charlie because if my wife said “Wait, Charlie is coming,” it would shivers down my spine…
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