Fort Shafter Community
South Korean-born Soldier owes life of service to an act of kindness
Story by SFC Wynnfred Hoke on 09/20/2019
By Sgt. Laura Martin, 8th Theater Sustainment Command Public Affairs
FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii As Lieutenant Colonel Jun Yi types diligently at his computer, it’s hard to believe this strong and noble looking man came from anything but an idyllic upbringing.
Long gone are any remnants of a premature baby who was induced early from his mother’s pregnant body in a small South Korean village of Sungnam.
Yi and his older sister were born from an unrequited love affair between an African American G.I. father, and Korean mother, and when his father decided to leave the relationship, it forced his mother Kim to make a choice no parent should ever have to face
PAINFUL TRADITIONS OF SORROW
Kim Sue Ki was born to a North Korean mother and an unknown African American Soldier from the 24th Infantry Regiment during the Korean War and she was ostracized and discriminated against her whole life.
Things started to look up for Kim in her twenties when she met a man who shared the same skin color as her own, and made her finally feel accepted an American Soldier who didn’t share the local Korean prejudices.
They had already welcomed a beautiful baby girl, and were expecting their next child. Kim hoped that eventually, when he headed back to the United States, they’d be going with him as a family. But this was not the case; he decided not to continue their relationship and after he returned from his tour in Vietnam; he planned on going back to America without them.
Unknown to Kim, she would be reliving her own mother’s story and when she finally grasped her new reality, it sent her into a desperate frenzy! .
Her children being even more different that she was meant that they would be treated even worse than she was treated growing up in South Korea. She could not, WOULD not allow them to live the life she had, so she knew she must make the ultimate sacrifice to save her children.
A MOTHER’S DESPERATION
The gates of Camp Henry in Daegu, South Korea, would have been intimidating for a young mother. The armed military police that stood sentry must have been frightening, but Kim knew what she had to do. She handed the bassinet carrying her six month old son over to the MP, kissed her daughter goodbye, and told the men the name of the children’s father.
If he wouldn’t rescue her from this life, surely he would at least take his children with him. She turned and began the hardest walk of her life, each step taking her further from the children she loved. Refusing to look back, because if she did, she knew she would never be able to let them go.
A FATHERS MISTAKE
The young enlisted Soldier on rest and recuperation from the Vietnam War couldn’t believe the situation he’d gotten himself into. He was called to the MP’s office and handed two children, with no place to go and no idea what to do next. He would soon be heading back to Vietnam, where fighting was escalating, and who knew if and when he would ever be back.
The choice was made. He drove the two children to a local orphanage, a prison sentence for two African American children in the Asian country, but what other option did he have?
In one day the children had been handed off to multiple strangers by their parents, who had nothing but hope that things for them would work out alright.
A COMMANDERS INTERVENTION
Time passed for the children at the orphanage, days, weeks, months, who knows how they were treated. Their future was bleak. Life for American Asian orphans wasn’t a pretty one, especially for ones of color. Most females were trafficked, working clubs as prostitutes, while the boys were used as black market runners or worse. These children’s lives would have been no exception if it weren’t for the kindness of one stranger.
Word of the children being dropped off at the gate and then the orphanage had reached the desk of the father’s company commander. Knowing the future the children faced, he directed the father to protect them. He ordered him to immediately pick up and care for his children, or face punitive action and be removed from military service.
Their father returned and hired a nanny to care for the children, setting up a small monthly allotment for their living expenses. He then adopted them back from the orphanage, and set them up to be raised in the nanny’s home alongside her daughter, who also had a child from a interracial relationship with an American Solider. They still would not be going to America as their mother dreamed, but at least they would not be available to a life of uncertainty.
Ten years passed with this arrangement. The children believed the woman who raised them to be their mother, they were not allowed to attend school, and had only little contact with the outside world because of their skin color. They may have continued this way forever if fate hadn’t stepped in.
A FATHER TAKES RESPONSIBILITY
Jun Yi was ten years old when his father came back to live with them. The Army had sent him back to Korea, and he was now told that this was his real family. His father had also decided to marry his nanny’s daughter, she had a half African American child of her own, and they would now all be a real family. Eventually, when the father’s duty was over, they would all make the trip to America together; Father, Sister, Nanny, Step-Mother, Step-Sister, and Jun.
Jun had heard all about America, he had seen the pictures outside the Army base where his father worked. Everyone said it was better than Korea. You could be anything you wanted there, you could go to school there, and no one made fun of you for having dark skin.
Life in America would start in Tacoma Washington. The excitement would be short lived though. Jun would be entering his new home a twelve year old boy, who didn’t speak English, had never been school, couldn’t read or write, and had a lisp.
Jun struggled in school, He always felt like he was playing catch up, and he could never be successful, until he found his calling.
TALENT ON THE FIELD
Jun may have struggled in the classroom, but all the anger he felt paid off on the football field. He liked to hit, and had a natural athletic ability that rocketed him to the top of his team. By his sophomore year he made Varsity, and scouts from all over were trying their best to get his attention.
Sadly, his academics weren’t where they needed to be. He failed his SAT’s and all the scouts that had been whispering in his ear, slowly disappeared. Except one.
Washington State University told Jun about a walk on program, where he could get help and support with his academics if he was serious. One year after his high school graduation, Jun walked onto the football team tryouts, and became a player for the University. The college helped him with tutors, homework programs, and for the first time in his life he achieved a 3.25 GPA.
He was successful on the field also playing in and winning the ALAMO bowl his sophomore year, winning a ring he still wears today.
Football had become the most important thing in his life, a way for him to be accepted and to prove his worth and earn his place in his new home. What else could be more important?
AN UNEXPECTED SURPRISE
With Spring Break only a week away, Jun received an unexpected call from his father. “I found your mother” he said. The irony, she had been living only forty blocks from the home Jun had gone to high school in. His father had made a secret trip back to Korea, where he hired an investigator to find any possible trace of his children’s maternal family.
That family came in the form of their Grandmother. Now in her 90’s, still living in the same neighborhood from all those years ago. She gladly shared her daughter’s number in South Korea and tearfully explained how she still prayed for her missing grandchildren that she never forgot.
Jun made the choice to come home for Spring Break, not knowing wat to expect, how he would feel, or what he even thought about the situation.
This was all an unexpected surprise that he never had even considered would be a possibility. Did she even want to see him?
A MOTHER’S BOND
The moment Jun saw the small woman out the window, he couldn’t control himself. It was as if his feet had a mind of their own. They lifted him from his chair and he flew down the sidewalk towards her.
They stopped inched away from each other. Each too emotional to say any words. His mother constantly touching each part of his body to make sure he actually was all there. It was if there had never been a moment apart.
They each told their stories, they laughed, they cried. When their time was up they couldn’t say goodbye. He went home with her to her house to meet his stepfather and brother and stayed for a week.
When Spring Break was over, he didn’t want to leave her. Like a child going to kindergarten for the first time, feelings of withdrawal and panic overcame him. He knew he had to go, but how could he? Was this how she had felt when she handed him over at the gates all those years ago?
Back at Washington State, spring training for football had begun, but Jun’s heart was no longer in it. Maybe the anger was gone, maybe he was unable to concentrate, but whatever the reason, his passion for football had evaporated with the appearance of his mother.
Unsure of what to do, and where to go, he prayed for guidance, and one thing kept resounding in his mind “make a difference”.
He kept going back to the Company Commander, that told his father to “Go get those kids”, and how that one act of kindness altered the entire course of his sisters and his life forever. He knew what he was meant to do.
The next day Jun walked into the Washington State R.O.T.C Office and signed up. He went to his football coach, and thanked him for the opportunity to play, the education and support he received, but told him he now knew his calling was to serve.
A LIFETIME OF SERVICE
Today Lieutenant Colonel Yi has proudly served over twenty years in the United States Army.
He volunteered to serve in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm, and has traveled and lived all over the world in the service to our nation.
A quiet humble man, he blushes when asked about his accomplishments, which are too numerous to list. He’s a family man, with a beautiful five year old son, and wonderful wife, who always makes him smile when he talks about her.
He and his mother are still close. The love he has for her is obvious as he tells his story. He has done many things.
During his Company Command in Weagwan, South Korea Yi established a foundation called “Mother and Son Sheto help single mothers and orphaned children in South Korea, reached out to communities to help keep the children and mothers off the streets and pushed education.
If you ask him, he will tell you, the most important thing he’s ever done is tell his story, because it reminds us that one act of kindness, can change a person’s life forever.