Korean Americans in Los Angeles rolled out a red carpet Thursday for 47 Marines who recently served in Iraq and Kuwait -- showering them with words of appreciation, gifts, prayers, songs and lunch.
The hosts said they wanted to show thanks for the U.S. military's role in the Korean War 50 years ago and in the recent fighting in Iraq.
"It was wonderful to be appreciated for the service that we did for the country," said Sgt. Clifford C. Forsyth of Tuba City, Ariz., who came from Camp Pendleton with fellow Marines on a bus chartered by the Korean American Friendship and Mission Exchange Society. "It was overwhelming. It was something that you don't expect."
That the speeches were translated from Korean to English during their time together made the event even more meaningful, Forsyth said, because that took so much effort.
"Will you tell us how to pronounce your name?" the Rev. David Chung asked when he got tongue-tied on Cpl. Richard I. Zwierzchowski's name.
At times, the English translation did not convey the nuances of what was said in Korean. But, small deficiencies seemed to get lost in the emotion.
The 3 1/2-hour encounter between the Marines and Korean Americans -- many of them old enough to be the GIs' grandparents -- began with a special worship service at Agape World Mission Church on South Lake Street in Koreatown, during which about 150 people in the congregation sang hymns, including "Amazing Grace" and "Rock of Ages," in English.
After a sermon by the Rev. Timothy Yoo, each Marine stepped up to the podium as his name was called to receive a commendation plaque that said: "In recognition of your heroic action in the capturing of Baghdad during the early stage of the Iraqi War in 2003."
The Marines -- all from the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Division -- also received sweaters and had red or pink carnations pinned to their shirts.
"I feel so blessed," said Chung, who was so moved at one point during the ceremony that he grabbed a Marine and hugged him. The Marines all served in Iraq or Kuwait during the war and returned in August to Camp Pendleton. On Thursday, they declined to discuss specifics of their overseas assignments or the battle action they saw there.
Thursday's welcome was the brainchild of In-Kook Rho, a 79-year-old Koreatown Methodist elder whose gratitude toward America goes back more than half a century to the Korean War.
"My life was saved because a U.S. helicopter airlifted me to a medical facility and a nurse named Hillary -- a daughter of a missionary -- took care of me," said Rho, president of the friendship society, which sponsored the event. "I always wanted to do something to return the kindness."
After the ceremony, the Korean Americans took the Marines, one of their spouses and two children to the Biwon (Sacred Garden) Buffet Land Restaurant for a smorgasbord of barbecued beef, stir-fried chicken, sushi and other delicacies. Many Marines tasted Korean cuisine for the first time.
"Absolutely delicious!" was the verdict of Lance Cpl. Ralph A. Sarabia as he bit into a morsel of barbecued beef.
Though he is from the heavily Asian community of Hacienda Heights, he had not tasted Korean food before, he said.
Some maneuvered chopsticks with difficulty. Others gave up and used forks instead.
The Marines said it was good to see a show of support at a time when criticism of America's involvement in Iraq receives so much attention.
"There was a lot of heart and emotion" in the event, Forsyth said. "I was really happy to be a part of it. It made me happy to be a Marine. It's good to be home; it's good to be here."