Let Freedom Ring: How America Gave My Family Hope

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As the thunderous booms of fireworks fade into the echoes our memories, I’ve had a chance to reflect on what the 4th of July personally signifies to me.  To me, it represents hope: hope to live, hope for freedom, hope for a fresh start, hope for a better tomorrow.  America, it’s history, and it’s national spirit are woven into the fabric of my family story.
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During the Korean War, my maternal grandparents, like many South Koreans, had to flee from their homes in order to escape the communist backed North Koreans who invaded the south.  My grandparents had to give up their home, their belongings, and the lives they had in order to survive.  I’ve heard their stories several times, but will never be able to fully grasp the tragedies and losses they had to endure and the sacrifices they made in order to survive.  They were blessed and fortunate that the United Nations and United States of America launched a counter-offensive from Inchon, South Korea, which eventually forced the communist forces back northwards, until an armistice was signed in 1953.  Had it not been for the sacrifices and bravery of the UN, US, and Republic of Korea soldiers, South Korea would not exist and my grandparents would potentially either have been killed or have had to live under the rule of dictators such as Kim Jong-Il or Kim Jong-Un in present day North Korea.
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In the aftermath of the Korean War, my grandfather, who had already been finding various jobs helping the US military forces, often vividly recounts one of the most fateful days of his life.  While at a US military station in South Korea, a supervisor in charge of repairing jeeps and vehicles asked if any of the South Koreans who had been working or volunteering there had any mechanic experience.  They were willing to hire workers on the spot because of the shortage of mechanics.
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My grandfather had no experience or skillset as a mechanic.  But, he raised his hand anyways.  He raised his hand to survive and he raised his hand because he hoped that this could be an opportunity for a better life.
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By the first day on the job, his supervisor quickly realized that my grandfather had no experience what so ever.  Fortunately, his supervisor sympathized for his situation and allowed him to stay onboard to learn the basics of being a mechanic on the fly.  My grandfather didn’t let his supervisor down.  He knew learning fast meant keeping his job and keeping his job meant he could have a better life.  He quickly learned how to repair jeeps and other vehicles and his work ethic earned him the respect of his peers and supervisors.  He was given a contract to continue his mechanic work with the US military in combat zones in the Vietnam War.  Eventually, his time and work in Vietnam led to an opportunity to come to the US.  The opportunity he had been hoping for had finally presented itself.  He knew that the US offered hope to start a fresh chapter in his family’s life.  So he took the opportunity without hesitation.
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My grandparents and their family first moved to New York City, but eventually settled in the Chicago area where my grandfather found work in construction.  My grandfather always discussed how he never had a chance at getting at an advanced education, so he swore and promised that his children would be provided with every opportunity to have one in the US.  He constantly put in overtime, working hard labor and operating heavy machinery while my grandmother sweated away working at a dry cleaning facility.  Between both of their sacrifices, they were able to make sure that their children had food on the table, a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs and could be in good school districts.  As time progressed, my grandfather’s dreams became a reality.
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He had gone from worrying about his family’s survival and losing everything, to watching his children grow up safely and begin to thrive as adults.  My mother and uncle worked their way through medical school to become physicians and my aunt became a pharmacist.  My grandfather kept his promise and his kids kept their end of the bargain of not letting his sacrifices go to waste.
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Over the years, as I’ve matured, I’ve tried my best to listen to and hear as many stories from my grandfather as I could.  To learn more about his struggles, his sacrifices, and his dedication to our family.  Because of our language barrier, I know I lose some things in translation, and he can’t convey every nuance of every story he tells me.  But, what doesn’t get lost in translation, is the love that he has for our family and how proud he is of his wife, his children, and grandchildren.  He cracks up and self-deprecates how an uneducated man like himself, who barely knew much English, was able to work so hard and make it here in the US.  And then the laughter turns to tears, as he reflects on the difficult journey he had to take and the happiness that he feels inside as he sees his children and grandchildren leading thriving lives and creating families of their own.
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Korean men, especially of his generation, aren’t well known to be expressive with their emotions.  So moments like these when he’s being vulnerable with me and letting down the wall of toughness that he had to create out of necessity to survive over his lifetime, definitely evokes different emotions within me.  I get surprised by his openness, sad from the pain in his eyes, happy from his tears of joy, and also guilty and ashamed by the spoiled life I lead.  But, most importantly, I feel privileged and blessed to have such a grandfather and that we can share these special moments together.
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As my grandfather holds my 10-month old, Tyler, in his arms; his eyes sometimes well up with tears.  And so do mine.  He is in the last chapter of his life.  I’m tearing up because I’m watching one of my heroes who was as strong as an ox and would run 5 miles a day as recently as a few years ago, start to hunch over, walk slower, struggle with physical ailments, and struggle with some mild memory issues.  I’m also tearing up because I’m proud of him, proud of what he has done for my family, blessed that he has been in my life since the day I was born, and blessed that he could watch me start my own family.  He is tearing up because he is holding his precious great-grandson, knowing his life is coming full circle and that Tyler represents the future, everything he has been fighting and sacrificing for his whole life.  He is at peace with his life.
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So as another Independence Day is fading into the history books, I wish America a happy birthday and I thank America for the freedom it offers and the opportunities it has provided my entire family over our lifetimes.  I thank the UN, US and Korean troops and their families for all their sacrifices during the Korean War and for those troops who are serving now.  I thank America for the hope it offers to those in need.
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And I thank my grandfather for raising his hand on that fateful day and altering the course of our family history for the better.
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This piece is dedicated to my grandparents Yong Ki Yu and Jung Nam Yu.  I love you both and hope that you understand our family thanks and appreciates everything you have done and continue to do for us.

3 Responses to “Let Freedom Ring: How America Gave My Family Hope

  • ken camell
    12 months ago

    Thank you for sharing a very personal and touching story of a proud man and what he accomplished. I first was in Korea Jan- Nov 51 with 2nd Inf Div, returned there tree other times in the 60s and again in the 90s . But I will never forget the hard working KAtUS in the winter of 51. They were amazing ??? Thank You and them I am still here.

  • Jack kilpatric
    12 months ago

    I too served in the USA military 7th Infantry Div. From September 1950 through May 1951 in a water cooled machine gun squad. My tour of duty started at the inchon landing to the Yalu river,and back to where the DMZ is today. I’m very proud that my efforts where rewarded by the success of the south Korean people to obtaining freedom and to prosper.

  • Jeffrey W. Lee
    12 months ago

    Very inspirational…thank you! And, may God (continue to) bless you and your family.

    In Loving Memory: Pfc Roy E. Koenig, H&S Co./1/1 USMC, Silver Star/Purple Heart (Posthumous), KIA 4/24/1951

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