Duty. Honor. Two Countries.

November 12, 2013
“On behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a token of the honorable and faithful service of your loved one."

“On behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a token of the honorable and faithful service of your loved one.”

One Special Veterans Day for Kim Family

Father of two West Point graduates laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery 

By Austin Kim

Special to The Korea Times

This year Veteran’s Day came early for our family.

On a clear autumn morning a few days ago, my mother, brother, and our loved ones gathered at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, in order to lay my father, Joseph Jaejin Kim, to rest.  Amid a traditional ceremony marked by the playing of Taps, a firing detail providing a 21 gun salute, and an honor guard performing full military honors, we offered our tearful goodbyes.

Before his passing my father had expressed his wish to be buried here, alongside four hundred thousand American veterans and patriots, in his adopted homeland’s most honored cemetery.

Considering that less than 0.5% of all Americans currently serve and that veterans comprise only 7% of the total U.S. population, our family is a bit of an anomaly. My father, brother, and I have all served. This despite the fact that Asian-Americans, representing 4% of the total U.S. population but only 1% of military recruits, are the most under-represented minority group in uniform.

Thus on this Veteran’s Day, I reflect upon the unique journey and beliefs that led our family towards service.

One journey, two countries 

After moving to the United States in the mid-70′s, my father enlisted in the U.S. Army. This decision took my parents back to Korea and brought my father into the American security force charged with supporting South Korea in its defense against the North. As was the case with all Korean males, my father had also previously served in the Korean Army through three years of compulsory service.  So during the course of his life, my father had the unique opportunity to serve under two nation’s flags.

While there certainly were practical aspects to enlist, including a steady paycheck and an acceleration of the citizenship process, I believe that joining the service must have answered an innate calling that my father and those of his generation had developed growing up during and after Korea’s civil war.

It was during my father’s assignment in Korea that I was born at a U.S. military hospital in Seoul. So began my affiliation with the Army. Similarly, my older brother had his early life impacted by my father’s service, especially in the form of frequent moves, leading to his enrollment in five different elementary schools.

Sergeant Joseph Kim’s decade of service ended when I was eight years old. At this point we moved back to the States and settled in Baltimore. Here my parents took the more traditional role of immigrants, owning and operating a string of small shops in the inner city, working 12+ hours a day, 7 days a week. Their work ethic and personal sacrifice would make a lasting impact on my brother and myself.

Austin Kim, left, and his older brother Peter Kim. While their decision to attend West Point  was largely for his father, their decision to stay, graduate, and serve was their own.

Austin Kim, left, and his older brother Peter Kim. While their decision to attend West Point was largely for his father, their decision to stay, graduate, and serve was their own.

Joining the ranks 

Like other Korean families, my parents had dreams of my brother and me attending prestigious Ivy League schools like Harvard and Yale. However, given my father’s military background, West Point also made it on to the short wish list of approved colleges.

My older brother first answered this dream by gaining admission to West Point in 1992. The United States Military Academy at West Point, like its sister federal service academies, prepares each of its cadets for military leadership, thus requiring development in physical fitness and military training in addition to academics.  In exchange, each graduate is expected to provide a minimum of five years of service as a commissioned officer.

With my brother’s example, my desire to make my parents proud, and do what I could to relieve them of the financial burden of paying tuition, I entered West Point in 1996.  Up until the first day of class in a cadet’s third year at school, one is free to leave with no financial or military service obligation. Thus, while my decision to attend West Point may have been made largely for the sake of my family, my decision to stay, graduate, and serve was my own.

Eight years of Army service took me to places like my former homeland of Korea and the hostile streets of Mosul, Iraq. Although I made a difficult decision to leave the military in order to pursue a prestigious business degree and private sector career, given another chance I would absolutely make the same decision to serve.  I cherish having had unique opportunities to grow personally and professionally and make far-reaching impact alongside other ideal-minded Americans.

On behalf of a grateful nation 

At the conclusion of my father’s memorial service, the presiding officer presented a meticulously folded flag to my mother saying, “On behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a token of the honorable and faithful service of your loved one.”

Today I am truly grateful, first and foremost for the service of veterans like my father, who I have the privilege of considering my peers, but also for the memorable and touching tribute the nation bestowed upon my father.

**The author is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and served in the US Army for eight years, earning the Bronze Star Medal and Combat Action Badge for his service as an embedded combat advisor to the Iraqi Army in Mosul, Iraq.

 

One Comment

  1. wen wu

    November 14, 2013 at 4:41 AM

    very touching, great family. best wish to you and your family
    wen wu

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