RICHMOND, Va. –
Capt. John Choi Hemby calls himself an “American Korean,” because, he says, he’s an American first. Hemby’s mother is Korean and his father, who served 20 years in the U.S. Navy, is white. Growing up in Virginia and Mississippi, he said it wasn’t always easy to fit in.
“Koreans had a hard time accepting half Koreans because you were neither Korean, nor were you fully white,” he said. He was given dirty looks, and eyed suspiciously while shopping in local Korean stores. While in Mississippi, he was told by an adult not to date someone’s daughter anymore and, as a young high school student, “a girl told me, when I asked her on a date, ‘I don’t date outside my own race.’”
Joining the military and putting on the uniform helped diminish the sharpness of those prejudices. Like many who were in high school on Sept. 11, 2001, Hemby was deeply affected by what the nation experienced that day, but that’s not what prompted him to join. It was a few years later, in the early phases of the Iraq invasion, when his half-sister pointed to a picture of Saddam Hussein and said, “bad man.”
“Right then and there I knew, I’m going to join to protect my family, my loved ones from the ‘bad man,” Hemby said. Plus, “I also felt, in a time of war, you should do your duty to the nation.”
For Hemby, duty to the nation is a family tradition. His family has a long legacy of American military service dating back to the Civil War. With a strong military influence coming from his family and a desire to protect his loved ones, Hemby joined the Mississippi Army National Guard in 2004 at the age of 17. As his friends took off on trips to backpack around Europe or party at the beach, Hemby headed first to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for Basic Combat Training, and then to Fort Sam Houston, near San Antonio, Texas, for training as a combat medic.
Shortly after completing his initial training, Hemby deployed for the first time. He returned to a traditional National Guard status after that, drilling one weekend a month, while attending college, utilizing the benefits from his service.
He decided to join his school’s ROTC program, which he figured would advance his career. In 2009, in his junior year, he deployed again, interrupting his college and ROTC experience. When he returned, he was told he’d have to repeat a year of ROTC, an option he wasn’t interested in. He finished his degree at the University of Southern Mississippi then applied for and was accepted to attend federal Officer Candidate School.
“I went to federal OCS, commissioned as a medical service officer and then I was a second lieutenant with a Bachelor’s Degree in psychology; so I thought it made sense to work for the VA as a case manager,” Hemby explained.
He worked with homeless and jobless veterans and described the job as “taxing.” He really wanted to work for the National Guard full-time, as an Active/Guard Reserve, or AGR, Soldier. He started applying for positions in Mississippi, but found it hard to find positions available to him as a new second lieutenant. On the advice from peers and mentors, he ultimately resigned his commission, and took an AGR position as a human resources specialist, later becoming a medical readiness NCO and an instructor at the Basic Leader Course at Camp Shelby, Mississippi.
“I kept putting my packet in for officer positions and then one day, one of my superiors sent me an announcement for Virginia for the [Civil Support Team] for a medical operations officer,” said Hemby. “I threw my packet in, I boarded and I got the job.”
He worked with the CST for several years before accepting a position with the Virginia National Guard’s Recruiting and Retention Battalion where he currently serves as the unit’s Bravo Company commander.
“The only thing I wish, is that other Asian American parents, the first generation that came over here, would look at the Guard as an opportunity for their children,” Hemby said. “Their view of the military in their home country is very different, probably, from what ours is, and the Guard has amazing opportunities.”
Joining the military and going to basic training, Hemby said, can be a mind-opening experience.
“You see everyone from different walks of life, you see people who may not have had three square meals a day, or people who maybe fast as part of their religious observances,” he said. “Diversity in the armed forces is necessary because it gives us the world view and doesn’t allow us to be close-minded. It betters us.”
In learning about Asian American culture, Hemby urges that sort of open-mindedness.
“Be aware and be respectful,” he said. “The important thing about Koreans or any Asian culture is to be respectful to their beliefs and cultural practices, have an open mind and not be rude.”
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and this month the Virginia National Guard is taking time to highlight the diversity of our force.