Remembering South Korea

East Meadowite recalls time in Army overseas

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Second in a two-part series about East Meadow’s women veterans.

When Stephanie Rossetti was stationed at Command Post Tango, a U.S. military base in South Korea, in August 1976, a somber feeling lingered throughout the base after news spread two U.S. soldiers had been murdered by North Korean soldiers.

“Although I can’t remember the exact names of the officers who were killed, I do remember how sad and scared everyone on base was,” Rosetti, 65, said.

The incident — now referred to as the North Korean ax murders — resulted in the death of two Army officers, Arthur Bonifas and Mark Barrett, who had been part of a work party sent to cut down a poplar tree, according to the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training website, adst.org. The tree was in the Joint Security Area of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a strip of land that serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea. The officers claimed that the tree blocked the view of United Nations observers, while the North Korean officers said the tree was in their territory.

“I heard stories about the Army officers getting murdered with an ax,” Rossetti recalled. “It sounded horrible. Everyone was on high alert. That was the only time I felt scared.”

A taste for freedom

Rossetti was born in Brooklyn on April 7, 1952, to Catholic parents who kept a close watch on Stephanie and her two younger sisters, Roseanne and Camille. When she was 12, in 1964, the family moved to Hicksville. After graduating from Hicksville High School in 1969, she worked at the department store S. Kline for five years. But she wanted more out of life.

“My parents were strict,” Rossetti said. “My father had the ‘my house, my rules’ mindset. It was the ’60s; parents were strict with their children. But I had something in mind to get a little freedom.”

In 1974, at 22, Rossetti enlisted in the U.S. Army to gain freedom and college benefits. She completed basic training in Fort Jackson, S.C., and was then stationed at Fort Gordon in Georgia, where she enrolled in military police school. While taking MP courses, that December, she met her future-husband, Bill Mathis, in December of 1974. The pair remained in Fort Gordon until March 1975, when they were stationed at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. By They wed that May.

“It was a short and quick ceremony, but I was so happy at the time,” Rossetti recalled.

The couple rented an apartment near the base. While Bill pursued an MP career, Stephanie followed a new path.

“Some people have different talents and different interests,” she said. “It was decided that I pursue food service instead.”

She enrolled in food service school at Fort Huachuca as a private second class, making friends and settling into her military life. When Bill received a notice of deployment to South Korea later that year, Stephanie submitted a request for deployment herself. “We were newlyweds,” she laughed. “We didn’t want to be apart from each other.”

The couple packed their bags and boarded a DC-10 plane to South Korea in March 1976.

Exploring a different world

The culture shock, Rossetti said, was the worst part. Families were either poor or rich. The meals looked different and somehow, the sun and sky seemed foreign, too. The language was difficult and the natives’ body language was hard to understand.

“I thought, ‘Get me out of here’ within the first few weeks — months even!” Rossetti recounted.

But she learned to adapt. The couple lived on base and employed a housekeeper, who had a young son. Stephanie, a born-again Christian, often prayed daily and attended a local church. Her housekeeper later confided that her cousin was a minister interested in learning Bible verses in English. So Stephanie sat with him for hours each day and helped him with his pronunciation.

“I can honestly say that was one of the best experiences I had while living there,” she said. “I did it from the heart.”

After the ax murders, her faith strengthened. She continued to work in food service, and traveled around South Korea in her free time. Fear did not linger whenever she heard news on base of a potential conflict. After spending 13 months abroad, the couple finally returned home on April 1977.

Stephanie was discharged as a specialist that December. Bill re-enlisted and they moved to Panama in 1978, where they had a daughter, Jen, and sons Jason and Jacob. They moved to Missouri in 1981, and seven months later they divorced. Rossetti moved to Hicksville the next year and lived there until 2011. Now, she lives in East Meadow with Jason and his family.

She volunteers at Last Hope Animal Shelter in Wantagh and became the only female member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2736 in December. In May she was named the first female grand marshal of the East Meadow Memorial Day Parade, a title she accepted with pride.

“It was truly a wonderful day,” she said. “I was so honored, and I still am. I’ve been blessed my whole life.”