FORT PICKETT, Va. –
Jason Pak, the Virginia Deputy Secretary of Veterans and Defense Affairs, shared his success story and lessons in leadership with participants in the Virginia Department of Military Affairs Workforce Development Mentoring Program during an event Oct. 20, 2022, at Fort Pickett, Virginia.
After introductions from Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the Adjutant General of Virginia, and retired Brig. Gen. Walt Mercer, the DMA Chief Operations Officer, Pak discussed both his upbringing and experience, both military and corporate, which preceded his current appointment. That background began with the foundation his father, a first generation Korean American, laid for him growing up.
“My father emigrated to the United States when he was ten years old. He didn’t speak a word of English, and worked very hard to learn it. He ended up graduating second in his high school class,” said Pak. “Many have probably heard very similar stories of coming up from humble beginnings and being thankful about the things you have and not upset about the things you don’t have. Being thankful for your family and your relationships, understanding the importance of being a good person, a good productive member of society, all those aspects of life my father has passed down to me.”
His father eventually attended the United States Military Academy and went on to have a successful military career. However, as a Korean American, Pak’s father experienced his share of discrimination, but used it as fuel to make himself better, instilling that same spirit in his son.
“Without a doubt he went through a lot of adversity growing up,” said Pak. “We talk a lot about diversity and inclusion, a big topic of today and will be for the forthcoming future. He’s told me about the racism he experienced, but he utilized that as motivation, as inspiration to do better, to make himself better. He always told me, and I carried this on to my military service, that if the guy and gal to the left and right of me can do it, there’s no reason I cannot.
“He lived that type of life, and passed that down to myself and my sister as we were growing up. It was about discipline, respecting your elders and respecting any individual regardless of whatever positional rank they have. Whether they are CEO of an organization or they are the worker who cleans restrooms and offices, you treat that person with the utmost respect and dignity as you would treat anyone else.”
Like his father, Pak also decided to go to West Point, where in addition to academics and military training, he also played soccer. However, he decided in his junior year to forego his athletic pursuits to focus on preparing to become an Army officer.
“I stopped playing my junior year, and decided to focus on getting ready to enter a profession where you are going to be put, as a newly-minted second lieutenant, in front of Soldiers with a tremendous amount of experience, far more than you have. So they really hammer the fact that leadership is not wearing a rank on your sleeve, it’s about influencing others, it’s about what you bring to the table It’s about connecting the dots and forming positive relationships.”
Pak joined his unit after completing Ranger school, using some of the lessons he learned there, from West Point and from his father to lead to the best of his ability.
“My personal leadership quality is leading with humility,” said Pak. “I really boil it down to just being a good person. As simple as that may sound, it’s carried me personally though my trials and tribulations. You have to get to know your people. We all understand how important it is when we start a new job or go to a new unit, how important it is to get to know your people. Being genuine and authentic - the authenticity factor is critical, and it was critical for me to gain the trust of my Soldiers and my leaders before we deployed to Afghanistan.”
During that first deployment to Afghanistan, Pak’s life changed forever.
“We set on our way in a single-file line, we followed our company standard operating procedure to clear IEDs from the route, and unfortunately as the third guy in the file, I stepped on the IED and immediately went into survival mode,” said Pak. “I share this because it doesn’t define who I am. It just so happened to be a bad day at work. I really equate it to, and many will disagree with me within the wounded warrior community, but if anything at all, it was more of a positive thing for me. It was hard, don’t get me wrong, going through the hospital process, you go through a very low period and ask ‘why was it me?’”
Pak lost both legs and two fingers in the blast, but quickly received inspiration and encouragement from an unlikely source, helping his recovery mindset.
“What it came down to was life didn’t have to be over for me. I quickly realized after being paid a visit by a quadruple amputee right after I arrived at Walter Reed about a week into my injury. Such a positive personality. He came in and said ‘Hey, sir - you lost both your legs and a couple fingers. I lost all four of my limbs but I’m loving life. I’m here with my wife, I’m here with my baby girl, and I’m as happy as I can be. You have nothing to worry about, it’s all downhill from here. You’re going to do great things. They’re going to throw some legs on you and you can do whatever the heck you want.’ At that early a stage in my injury I was blown away.
“After that I kind of came to a realization that nothing will faze me,” Pak continued. “You come to a near-death experience where again the values I was brought up with were ‘never give up, never quit.’ No matter what challenge is put in front of you, what adversity you encounter, you can overcome that. It’s not what happens to you, it’s the reaction to what happens to you that defines you. I really took that to heart.”
Pak didn’t let his injuries stop him from becoming a successful leader. After serving on the staff of U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, Pak worked for 8 years at Boeing, serving as director of the Mid-Atlantic region for Boeing Global Engagement, including leading veterans outreach initiatives for the company. Coupling his military, government and corporate experience, Pak was appointed to his current role as deputy secretary, but hasn’t lost sight of the values which have helped him succeed in his previous roles.
“What we learn in the military is regardless of race, creed, religion or ethnicity, you treat that person like you would treat anyone else,” said Pak. “You all start from an even-keeled playing field. It’s incumbent on you to carry your weight. It’s incumbent on you to be a good team player and be a good person someone else can really trust.”
While the DMA mentoring program exists to help employees grow into future leaders by having interactions with current leadership, those current leaders also benefit from the discussions and relationships they build in the program. Pak emphasized that point as he reminded the group what leadership really means.
“Leadership is not about yourself,” Pak stressed. “I will never know everything. It’s about surrounding myself with people and identifying who those people are and trusting in them to help you make the best decisions for group, for the team, for the organization.”
The DMA Workforce Development Mentoring Program is in its third year, matching up employees with leaders to exchange knowledge, experience and career guidance. While still relatively new, Mercer said the program continues to grow and the organization has started seeing benefits as a result.
“The program we designed a few years ago was really designed to fill a gap to improve our talent management and build the future bench, and we’ve had some success with that,” said Mercer. “It’s a pretty good program, and folks who have participated in it have seen a lot of good things come out of it. I know I’ve seen some growth, some improvements and some good relationships that have continued beyond the mentor time.”
The fourth iteration of the mentoring program will begin in early 2023.