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LEAP scholar shares his journey from humble beginnings in Korea to Air Force flight nurse

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  • By Jasmine Bourgeois, AFCLC Outreach Team

Air Force Major Michael Yim remembers his early days in the United States vividly. At just 15, his family relocated from their home in Korea to Virginia. It was a long journey that came with some harsh realities for the Korean-born teenager now living in the U.S.

“I just remember getting here and thinking we looked different, we talked different, and we ate different,” Yim said. “I was made aware of my differences right away.”

The feeling of instant culture shock was one that stuck with Yim, as well as motivated him to find his place in America. After graduating from high school Yim moved again. This time, he traveled to Boston to pursue his undergraduate degree where he faced a new challenge: the cost of college tuition.

“I quickly realized how expensive college was,” Yim said. “My parents didn’t have a lot of money and I was literally living off “Spam and rice” and making pizza after school in those days. I remember talking to a friend who was telling me about his life as a Korean linguist in the United States Air Force. I was intrigued and met with a recruiter shortly after.”

Yim met with a recruiter who he said promised him that he would be a linguist in the Air Force too. Soon after Yim enlisted, he said learned he was actually on a different track.

“I ended up being a medic. It wasn’t what I initially hoped for, but, I was called to serve our nation and I answered that call,” Yim said.

“As a native Korean speaker I always wondered ‘what if I had gone down a different path?’ I remember I was just an Airman First Class when I was called upon to use my language skills in the Air Force for the first time. A housekeeper on base had been accused of stealing and my base commander reached out to me to translate during the investigation. I was able to help, not just with general translations, but with understanding the subtle nuances and cultural differences and they were extremely impressed. That was the first time I thought to myself that I could do both, pursue my career as a medic and use my language skills, while in the Air Force.”

During the next four years, Yim continuously took Defense Language Proficiency Test every year and used his language capabilities to help out the patients visiting clinic for their appointments before he got out and went through the Nursing School.  Several years later, Yim was back and commissioned as an officer. This time, he had new aspirations.

“I spent the next few years working my way up to become a Flight Nurse,” Yim said. “After I commissioned, I had an opportunity to go to Osan Air Base to participate in a theater-scale military exercise while I was stationed at Travis Air Force Base as a regular nurse. I was fascinated watching the different forces, different cultures working together for a common goal. I experienced a number of exercises including “Ulchi Freedom Guardian.” I remember one time I was asked to go to Korean Air Simulation Center and serve as a translator for the two pilots in there. It was like mixing oil and water. Both parties were nervous and uncomfortable sitting next to each other, and I had to step in and work with them. It’s funny now because at the end of the exercise they were actually buddies and were able to talk, work, and mingle together. This was a huge turning point for me as a Korean-born U.S. service member”.

Shortly after this experience, Yim said a friend of his told him about the Air Force Culture and Language Center’s Language Enabled Airman Program. Yim applied for LEAP admitting that he didn’t know much about the program. He said he just knew he wanted to use his language skills.

“I was accepted into the program in 2011 and took my first eMentor course. Based on my DLPT scores, I was encouraged to start learning a new language, which was Mongolian. Not long after that I went on my first immersion to Korea and Mongolia and it was a wonderful experience. I remember riding camels and escorted the AFCLC Language Division Chief and his team around Mongolia. I now have a grasp of Korean, Japanese and Mongolian.”

After his tour in Korea, Yim was sent to Scott Air Force Base as a Flight Nurse. During his time there, he was tasked to support the “Key Resolve” Theater Exercise in Korea where both his medical and language skill set significantly enhanced interoperability with partner nations.

 “These immersions have really kept me in the Air Force,” Yim said, “one of the main reasons I joined the Air Force was to travel and experience difference cultures, and grow. I would never get to do this as a regular nurse working at a hospital. LEAP has really been a retention tool and allowed me to use my language and cultural capabilities in the Air Force. I never expected life to turn out this way and to be able to serve in this interoperability and help build relationships with the partner nations. With the ongoing crisis in the Middle East and China, we hear a lot from senior leaders about resiliency and lethality. The reality is we can’t be as a lethal as we want to if we can’t build those relationships. When the time comes to serve, we need Airmen on the frontline not only competent as a translator and well-versed with the military jargon, but who understands the intricacy of the culture and language capabilities without having to spend the money to hire a separate translator. LEAP brings incredible amount of intangible value to the Air Force.”

Yim currently serves as the President of the LEAP club at Ramstein Air Force Base where he speaks to commanders and potential LEAP members about the program.  As far as his future goes, he wishes to expand his experience as a LEAP member and pursue his career as an International Health Specialist. Yim said his father was in the Korean Air Force and his brother is a Naval Officer in the U.S. Navy. He said his parents have all of their pictures hanging on the wall. For Yim, the photos serve as a reminder of how far their family has come, the long journey from Korea and their careers in the Armed Forces.

“When I go home and see our service portraits together on the wall, I know they are proud. I can’t thank LEAP and the AFCLC staff enough for what they’ve done for me throughout my career.”

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