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True resiliency: How a Korean orphan became an American Airman

130514-F-RR679-966.jpgBy Tech. Sgt. Jake Richmond
U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds Public Affairs

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — Someone once told Tech. Sgt. Holly Mays that people either completely forget or vividly remember their most traumatic experiences. That’s the only way she can explain her fragmented recollections of the day she became an orphan, at less than two years old.

It was roughly 37 years ago when two women brought her to a street corner in South Korea and set her down on the sidewalk. As they turned to walk away, they told her to just stay there and wait.

So, she stayed. She cried for a long time.

“It got dark. It was cold. I remember my diaper was soaking wet,” she says.

Sometime after sundown, two male figures picked her up and brought her to a building full of uniformed people. It should have marked the end of the worst day of anyone’s life. For her, it was only the beginning of a long childhood of torment.

Life, for an orphan, isn’t supposed to be easy.

She was brought to a large Christian orphanage. Like many orphanages, affection was as scarce as the resources. They named her Kim In Sook, gave her unmemorable food, and assigned her a specific space on the cold, hard floor for sleeping.

Mays says the faith teaching is the only positive memory she has from her five-plus years at the orphanage.

“I didn’t know why I was on Earth,” she says. “It gave me something to believe.”

Beliefs were better than nothing. But the important thing was to stay “focused on surviving,” which amounted to a constant effort to follow the strict rules of the institution. She often failed.

She says she struggled with discipline many times, and it culminated with her sleep habits. Almost every night, she unconsciously urinated all over her floor space and was repeatedly found sleeping outside her designated rectangle. Morning after morning, she woke up to angry nuns berating her.

Life, for an orphan, isn’t supposed to be calm.

Eventually, the orphanage staff rounded up several of their biggest troublemakers, including 6-year-old Kim In Sook, and decided to find somewhere else for them to live. A small group of adults from a nearby all-girls orphanage came and led the delinquent group on a long walk to their new home.

It was better there. The adults were kinder, there were fewer girls sharing space and they even went to a local grade school. But the education experience wasn’t exactly typical.

“Picture a girl at public school with raggedy clothes who smelled and had no money.”

They couldn’t pay for lunch at school, and there was never enough food at the orphanage. She and the other girls were always hungry.

“Hungry and thirsty,” she says pointedly.

Life, for an orphan, isn’t supposed to be fulfilling.

And her bed, again, was a plot of hard floor. There was no heat in her building. The below-freezing winter temperatures made their sleeping quarters nearly unbearable for months at a time. Every day, they warmed enormous charcoal bricks in a huge furnace, and then someone placed the bricks in special slots under the floors. One brick per room. The youngest girls slept closest to the warm center. As an 8-year-old, Kim In Sook was relegated to the frigid space along the walls.

About two years later, she met an American Soldier and his wife. They were stationed in Korea, and they began regularly volunteering at the orphanage. They immediately took a special interest in Kim In Sook, seeking her out every time they came. She tried to hold her excitement at bay, always aware that nothing truly good had ever happened to her.

“By age 8, I’d never been shown love,” Mays says. “Nobody gave me hugs or kisses or pats on the back. But from being at school and hearing stories, I knew about moms and dads. I knew there was such a thing as love, and I wanted it.”

The couple kept visiting. They kept talking to her, and they kept making her smile. She found herself crying when they left, believing every visit was their last.

The orphanage staff frequently reminded her that no one would ever adopt a girl her age, so she was shocked when the military couple wanted to “try her out” for a weekend at home. She resolved to stay on her best behavior, and she did. The two-day visit led to another, and another, until she found herself staying for a week at a time.

Her dangerous hopes were realized less than a year after meeting the military couple. Unable to have kids of their own, they decided to adopt her. They renamed her Holly, and she was happy.

Life, for an orphan, isn’t supposed to be happy.

130507-F-RR679-072.jpgThe lonely, disconnected existence of public care facilities was a thing of the past. In its place was a new world of verbal, emotional, physical and even sexual abuse. Her parents then adopted another Korean child, this one a baby, and Holly immediately felt forgotten by her mother. Resentment flourished and flowed in all its dysfunctional directions.

“I still feel bad,” Mays says. “I was such a mean big sister.”

The family moved to Maryland, but nothing got better. The abuse, in all its forms, continued. She remembers her father retired there, when Holly was about 12. Roughly two years later, they moved again, this time to Florida. That’s where her adoptive parents finally separated and later divorced.

She was free from her father’s abuse, but left alone with a mother who doted on the younger daughter and treated Holly with vicious disdain.

At school, she didn’t fit in. Some kids outright bullied her. Many others were just content to remind her, every day, how different she looked, how different she talked.

“I felt I had no one…no friends, no family. I didn’t see any future. I didn’t see how it could get any better. Or worse.”

Three years went by, in a “living hell.” She wanted to commit suicide and considered it several times. For a long time, the only thing that stopped her was her belief — instilled at the Christian orphanage — that it was an unforgivable sin. She was simply too scared to kill herself.

But that fear, too, would be replaced by another, more imminent one: teen pregnancy.

That was Holly’s reality, a few months after meeting her first boyfriend. When she imagined her mother’s reaction, there was no coping. She was terrified, and she lost the last sliver of hope she had. Finally, she had a problem she just couldn’t handle.

The next morning, after years of imagining it, she made the real decision to take her own life. She would do it that night after school.

She gave all her valuables to her sister, “just like our suicide awareness training tells us,” and told her she loved her. Then, she went to her mom’s medicine cabinet and secured a bottle of sleeping pills.

Life, for an orphan, isn’t supposed to be worth living.

She went to school and spent her first couple of classes serenely enjoying the thought of being done with life. “That day, I was at peace,” Mays recalls.

Suddenly, she felt the urge to go the restroom. She went. A few minutes later, to her immense surprise, she realized she wasn’t pregnant after all. She was never pregnant — just late. A wave of intense emotion cascaded over her.

“I sat there in the stall and cried,” Mays says. “It was a huge turning point for me. I actually felt happy that I didn’t have to kill myself, and I thanked God for a second chance.

“I went home and hugged my sister and tried to start living a positive life.”

She got a job at a local grocery store, where she met a 22-year-old Army Soldier. She tried not to fall for him, but she did. He asked her to marry him. First, she said no. Then she thought about life away from her mother, and she said yes. She was only 17.

After she graduated, they moved to Fort Campbell, Ky. At first, it was good. She thought she had finally found love and security.

It wasn’t long before she was introduced to the angry version of her husband. Soon, he was beating her with the same intensity and regularity as her mother had. But she knew life could be worse, and she desperately wanted to be done with her tragic past. She knew she could endure it, so she did.

One day, less than a year later, her husband announced he didn’t love her anymore. He wanted a divorce.

Part of her couldn’t believe it was happening. The other part of her — the narrator of her hardened memories — wasn’t surprised. She had no reason to believe she was lovable.

Depression and loneliness, her most reliable companions, returned to her. For several months, she was just “existing.” She had no idea what to do with herself.

Life, for an orphan, isn’t supposed to be purposeful.

Holly Mays will never forget the day she saw the Air Force commercial on TV. For the first time in days, she found herself abruptly, thoughtfully attentive.

She knew about the military from her father and, later, her husband. She realized the Air Force might be able to give her a good, stable life. At that point, it was all she wanted. She called the local recruiting office a few minutes after the commercial ended.

“I just wanted to find a place where I belonged.”

As it turned out, she belonged right away, and she hasn’t stopped belonging for 17-plus years.

“I feel the Air Force gave me a second chance at life,” she says. “I’m healthy, I’m happy and I’m loved by so many people. People actually describe me as a positive person.”

One reason for that is her current job, which gives her plenty of opportunities to show her smile. As a member of the Thunderbirds, the Air Force’s official jet demonstration team, Mays gets to travel around the country and talk to thousands of young kids at air shows. She knows some of them are going through difficult childhoods like hers, so she tries to share her hard-won optimism.

According to Air Force Instruction 1-1, “Air Force Culture,” paragraph 1.5, Airmen “must strive to be resilient: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually prepared to meet the challenges inherent to being a member of a fighting force.” Challenges, of course, are relative. Resilience is transcendent.

“It’s easy to spend your time sulking in your misery, but I want them to know that every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around,” she says. “You don’t have to live the life that’s laid out for you.”

Holly Mays stopped living her old life the day she decided to join the Air Force.

She doesn’t know the name her real parents gave her, but she’s got five stripes on her sleeve and an impressive duty title. She barely passed elementary school, but she’ll soon have her master’s degree. She doesn’t know when she was born, but she knows she’s two-point-five years away from a comfortable retirement.

She doesn’t claim to have any unique toughness or wisdom derived from her years of struggle, but she understands how resilience can pay off.

Life, for an orphan, isn’t supposed to be good. But for one orphan who became an Airman, it finally is.

PHOTO 1: Tech. Sgt. Holly Mays was orphaned on the streets of South Korea before she was two years old. Now, she’s the unit training manager for the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and a 17-year veteran of the service. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez)

PHOTO 2: Tech. Sgt. Holly Mays holds her childhood passport, the earliest identification document she has in her possession. It was issued in 1974, not long after she was abandoned on the streets of South Korea at the age of 1. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez)

Keys to Success

by CMSAF James A. Roy
Exclusive for Air Force Live

Over the last three and a half years, many Airmen have asked me for tips to success in the Air Force. As I prepared for retirement, I compiled a list of a few things I think Airmen can do to achieve success.

1. Be great at what you do.
A young Airman’s most important task is to become proficient in his or her primary duty. Work toward being an expert in your field. You have to know your job inside and out to know how it could be done better. As we trade size for quality in our Air Force, we will need innovative subject matter experts more than ever.

2. Take advantage of as many opportunities as you can.
Get outside your comfort zone and learn something new every chance you get. Approach every opportunity with an open mind, and trust the senior NCOs and officers who may see things in you that you don’t see. Apply for special duties, volunteer for leadership roles and seek education opportunities.

3. Be a bold leader.
Define success for the Airmen you supervise. Provide the resources they need and hold them accountable for achieving it. Deliver the required, appropriate feedback, and listen closely to your Airmen when they talk. What do they want? What do they need? How can you help? Tactfully and respectfully stand up for what’s right.

Hard to believe these simple things are the keys to success? It’s true. In the future, our Air Force will rely even more on Airmen to be great at what they do, to take on new challenges, and to accept increased leadership responsibilities.

I know you are up to the challenge.

Thank you for your service.


CMSAF James A. Roy
16th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force

Success through leadership


Master Sgt. Christopher Riffle

By Master Sgt. Christopher Riffle
27th Special Operations Security Forces Squadron

Having served 18 years in the Air Force, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to learn from and work beside some of the greatest leaders the military has ever seen. I do not claim to be a subject matter expert on leadership, nor do I consider myself to be a great leader. However, I know enough about the subject to share my thoughts on how great leadership can result in a successful unit.

The Air Force defines leadership as the art of influencing and directing people to accomplish the mission. This very difficult task can be accomplished if leaders at every level keep two very important elements in mind, successfully completing the mission, and taking care of their people.

Great leaders know the importance of their unit’s personnel and their role in mission success. Gen. Curtis E. Lemay, former Air Force Chief of Staff stated, “No matter how well you apply the art of leadership, no matter how strong your unit or how high the morale of your men, if your leadership is not directed completely toward the mission, your leadership has failed.”

I’ve always believed that this meant that, as a leader, if I was taking care of my Airmen and their needs it would ensure that the unit’s mission would be successful.

All Airmen are able to be leaders regardless of position or rank. Leadership isn’t something everyone is born with; it’s learned and developed.

How we develop ourselves and our Airmen will determine if we’ll ever truly become effective leaders. It’s important that we continue to add to our leadership toolkit by seeking professional military education, on-the-job training and professional development.

A great leader will ensure that his or her subordinates are given the opportunities to learn leadership traits through deliberate development. It’s through these experiences that we gain the qualities it takes to be a great leader.

Although there are many leadership qualities to speak of, there are a few that I have seen make lasting impacts on personnel and units across my career.

I believe enthusiasm is the most contagious of all. Throughout time the most successful leaders have demonstrated enthusiasm for the mission and their people. A leader’s enthusiasm is contagious and will spread through a unit to motivate others to adjust to the unit’s needs.

As leaders we must demonstrate a commitment to the Air Force, our unit’s mission, and our subordinates. If we do this, our Airmen will want to follow us.

As leaders we must do not only what we ask our Airmen to do, but also more. We must be credible at all times. Remember that we all are on parade and must avoid showing stress when dealing with challenging situations.

Communication is a two-way process. Listen to what your people are saying, because they often have great ideas. Share the importance of the mission and its impact on national interests. A well-informed Airman recognizes the importance of his or her job and will be more effective.

Leaders are responsible for the unit’s mission; if it fails we must accept the consequences. Accountability is also essential. Reward a job well done and hold those who fail to meet the established standards accountable.

Throughout my time here at Cannon, I have witnessed the many successes the 27th Special Operations Wing has accomplished.

I believe this is a direct correlation to the great leadership we have developed. These are Air Commandos at all levels, not just senior officers or NCOs but Airmen as well, those who want this wing to be successful not for personal gain, but because it is expected.

I challenge you to find leadership opportunities that will provide you with additional professional development. Make time to take advantage of educational opportunities at Cannon. Taking these actions will ensure the wing continues to develop leaders needed for its continued success.

Photo: U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Christopher Riffle, 27th Special Operations Security Forces Squadron first sergeant, takes a proud stance just outside the Security Forces building at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., March 21, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Carlotta Holley)

Training with Marines: Week Three

This is the third blog entry for Master Sgt. David Wolfe, a security forces Airman from Scott Air Force Base, Ill., who is training at the Marine Corps Staff NCO Academy at Camp Pendleton in southern California. He volunteered for it after learning slots were available for Air Force senior NCOs.

“I knew this would be a challenge and the opportunity to work with the Marine Corps for seven weeks sounded like an awesome chance to grow personally and professionally,” said Sergeant Wolfe, who enlisted in the Air Force in 1992 and has served all over the world, to include the Middle East, Germany, Italy, Alaska and Wyoming. “My wife did three years in the Marine Corps and my oldest son enlisted last summer just after I left for Iraq, and is currently in tech school, so we have some family connection to the Corps as well.”

You can read his previous experiences HERE and HERE.

Week 3

The Marine Corps Advanced Course marches on here at Camp Pendleton with the academic schedule accelerating over the last two weeks. As of today, we are finished with the officially graded assignments and everyone seems to have done well.

PT has been tough as usual. I mentioned in my last post we were scheduled for a run called baby tears, and it was difficult – as advertised. A 4-mile run to the top of a training range, followed by a run back down to the bottom. Climbing for two miles straight does a number on your legs, and coming down, while faster, is equally as hard on the knees and ankles. We followed that up the next day with a circuit course, and one of the stations was the o-course itself.

The academic week was focused on the Marine Corps version of our OJT program, with an in-depth analysis of how the Marines ensure combat readiness across the Corps. Some similarities exist, but the system is largely focused around the idea of a constant training environment, something we sometimes cannot enjoy with home station mission requirements.

One of the highlights of the week was a pt session called run-swim-run. Camp Pendleton is divided into many geographically independent camps. Since our camp does not have a pool, we ran to an adjacent camp, a two-mile journey through the woods and brush on a trail with a few ups and downs. At the end of the two miles, a quick shower was followed by a refreshing dip in the pool. While I am not the strongest runner, I luckily have no problem in the pool. A quick down and back, and we were out of the pool and back on the trail to our camp. In the end, a four-mile run, with a quick swim in the middle. It was a great PT session, and of course it was competitive as usual. The pool being the great equalizer, I was able to improve my finish by about 25 places.  

A few group mentoring sessions this week with the Sergeant Major (equivalent of our CMSgt), have left me with a better understanding of the Marine Corps rank structure and relationships between the senior enlisted ranks. A split occurs when Marines are promoted to the grade of E-8, with some Marines becoming MSgt’s and some pinning on the rank of First Sergeant. I was able to provide a brief synopsis of our rank structure, hopefully shedding some light on our promotion system.

We ran a second Marine Corps PT Test this morning. It was not for score, just a measuring stick for the schools PT program. I can attest it has worked, as my 3-mile run time improved nearly two minutes, and I was able to keep myself in a new group of runners on the way. Even though every Marine knew the score did not count, everyone I saw was giving 100%, another testament of the dedication of these great professionals.

More from Camp Pendleton on graduation week.

(Picture attached: Gunnery Sergeants Truite, Raterink, and Standifird, along with me getting ready for the PT test 2 June 2010. The shirt we are wearing is the school PT uniform.)

Training with the Marines

 This is the second blog entry for Master Sgt. David Wolfe, a security forces Airman from Scott Air Force Base, Ill., who is training at the Marine Corps Staff NCO Academy at Camp Pendleton in southern California. He volunteered for it after learning slots were available for Air Force senior NCOs.

“I knew this would be a challenge and the opportunity to work with the Marine Corps for seven weeks sounded like an awesome chance to grow personally and professionally,” said Sergeant Wolfe, who enlisted in the Air Force in 1992 and has served all over the world, to include the Middle East, Germany, Italy, Alaska and Wyoming. “My wife did three years in the Marine Corps and my oldest son enlisted last summer just after I left for Iraq, and is currently in tech school, so we have some family connection to the Corps as well.”

You can read his first-week experience HERE.



Week 2.  

With just over two full weeks under my belt, things are beginning to take shape.

This week’s PT regimen was especially taxing, but considering the Gunnery Sergeants here are on average 6 years my junior, I think I am holding up well despite my extra wear. Perhaps the most grueling session this week was called Mateo Loop. The total distance of this run was 6 miles, starting with a one mile formation run to the start point. The base of the hill did not look too bad at first. After cresting the hill, and thinking we were home free, we realized we had just begun to climb. A second hill of longer distance and more incline put us on top of Mateo with a nice view of the rest of Camp Pendleton. Several smaller rolling hills followed until we finally finished near the base of our start point.

Also worthy of note, this was a “Popsicle stick” run, meaning as each person crossed the finish line, he or she was given a numbered Popsicle stick based on overall finish order. The platoon with the lowest overall total was given immunity from clean up day on Thursday, and while I am not sure how much my finish helped the team, my platoon won the overall prize! Our RECON/JTAC Marines and drill instructors must have carried us nicely. There were some good hearted jabs from members of my platoon to others, something like “we beat you, and we have the Air Force guy!” We were all very pleased with our victory. The competition element of PT keeps people motivated.

And then there was the “Spartan Run”. Sounds fun, right? Actually, it was fun, and was competitive like Mateo Loop. This time, a one mile run, 20 push-ups, 20 crunches, 20 air squats, followed by another mile run, then 30-30-30 of the same exercises, then another mile run, ending with 50-50-50, same exercises. In the end – a 3 mile run and 300 repetitions. Another great PT event was Casualty Evacuation day. First, we completed the individual effort portion, consisting of 2 minutes each of push-ups and sit-ups. Then the team portion started with a ten-minute pull-up competition where we lined up alphabetically and took turns on the pull-up bar by platoon. Our score was determined by total pull ups done by the entire platoon. Then, as a platoon of twenty, we were issued flack vests, Kevlar, and weapons ranging from M-240G machine guns (the infantry version of the 240B Security Forces uses), M-249’s, and dummy M-16’s. We were given two litters, several 30lb ammo cans, and two full five-gallon water jugs. Our task was to carry two casualties and all the gear a distance of about 1 mile. The casualties were our platoon members, and each had to weigh 170lbs each.

After a Kevlar-toss competition to determine starting position, my platoon was on the poll position thanks to a perfect throw by our Platoon Sergeant Gunnery Sergeant Jeffrey Wright. After moving as fast as possible down the dirt road and back to the starting position, our platoon finished just seconds behind another platoon. Did I mention our attire was what the Marines call “boots and utes”? That’s just another way of saying we did it in ABU’s minus ABU top. We also took our first written academic test this week. The test was largely based on infantry concepts, most familiar to me from my background in airbase defense. We are also working this weekend on an operations order, and my group has been tasked to write an order to defend an airfield.

One piece of the academy I am enjoying most is the use of a concept called “values based training”. After each PT session, one of the cadre or a student gets in front of the group and discusses a topic. These range from unit cohesion, to teamwork, to combat readiness. There is a reason why we do everything we do – to ready us to perform under pressure. When the chips are down, if we have trained hard and taken advantage of the adversity we have been given, we will be ready. This concept is a pre-designated mentoring session. It’s something we do in the Air Force as well, but not with structure and maybe not as often as we should. After the first two plus weeks, things are going well.

Tomorrow morning, we hit a 4-mile incline called Baby Tears.

Trust me, there is nothing about it that looks easy.