From a South Korean Immigrant to Winning the US Army Reserve Command Supply Excellence Award!
A true story of a young immigrant who thrived in the U.S. Army
Staff Sergeant Olivia Hwang serves in the same unit as my husband. She immigrated from South Korea at age 25. We sometimes chatted in the hallway at the headquarters. She often avoided eye contact, and normally not much more than a polite greeting, “Hello, ma’am. How are you today?”
At a recent military funeral for a fallen Soldier in our unit, SSG Hwang showed up in her Army Dress Blues with her hair pulled back tight in a bun. Her poised strides and military bearing was striking; she spoke with confidence and pride. She was grieving for the loss of her fellow Soldier.
“I joined the Army to get my U.S. citizenship.” SSG Hwang started telling me her unusual journey. It wasn’t the normal John Wayne-inspired, purposeful speech I’d heard from other Soldiers.
In 2005, SSG Hwang’s parents decided to immigrate to the United States. She moved to Los Angeles from South Korea with her family with few personal possessions among them. With a Bachelor of Arts degree in Health and Sports Science at Ewha Woman University, SSG Hwang got her first job as the Health and Nutrition Manager at a L.A. Women’s Body Center. She then became an accounting specialist at a credit card processing company. The pay was not enough to support her family. The path to citizenship was not promising with such limited funds and uncertain timeline.
“Join the military,” some friends suggested upon seeing her frustration. “You could get education, training, guaranteed pay, and citizenship.” The idea did check all the boxes she was searching for at the time. In 2008, she enlisted with the Army and was off to Basic Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
This was the first time SSG Hwang had set foot outside of L.A. The seven-week Basic Training was from September to October. South Korea has four distinct seasons with a pleasant spring and autumn. The Carolina heat and humidity made it difficult to breathe during outdoor exercises. She was sweating away any extra pounds.
Now, weighing in at 115 pounds, she raised her sleeves to show her thin arms, “I could not do any push-ups.” So, every day, she stayed after everyone left and did extra. Her young body took the training, and she finally passed. “My battle buddy and I hugged and laughed. My arms were so tired I almost could not hold on to her.”
“I am tough and determined. But I never expected it to be so difficult.” SSG Hwang paused and relived the memories, “I did not know anyone there. My English was not very good. Most of the time, I could not tell if the drill sergeant was yelling at me or the group.”
“My battle buddy helped me so much.” A battle buddy is a partner assigned to every Soldier in the U.S. Army. They studied military history, policy, and doctrine together. She would translate them into Korean first, so she could understand the meaning, then memorize them in English. SSG Hwang’s determination also helped her battle buddy to stay mentally strong, “I was her moral support to combat her own personal challenges.”
After graduating from Basic Training, SSG Hwang went on to complete her military occupational specialty (MOS) training program at Fort Lee, Virginia. She learned lots of Army regulations knowledge on property and financial responsibility. Her job required honesty and integrity because of the constant dealing with sensitive government credit card information and financial liabilities. SSG Hwang sighed, “Following strict rules is easy. I had to learn to say no to my fellow Soldiers or higher ranking officers. It was not easy for me to do.”
SSG Hwang transferred to 1st Brigade, Pacific Division, 75th Training Command in Southern California after her first successful tour at 492nd Civil Affairs Battalion, Buckeye, Arizona. As a full-time, active-duty Soldier in an Army Reserve Brigade, she learned quickly that resources were even more scarce than the shrinking Regular Army. She volunteered to take on more responsibilities and excelled at managing the supply group. Her positive and hard-working attitude was noticed by many others. She was requested by-name several times to return to South Korea to translate and drive for General Officers on military exercises.
“Winning the 2016 US Army Reserve Command Supply Excellence Award was a validation of our amazing team efforts. I certainly did not expect it.” SSG Hwang was humbled about receiving the prestigious award with hundreds of units competed around the world. She was thankful of a supportive team and leadership in the unit. “Together, we developed an outstanding Standard Operating Procedure. Now, we rank as the top unit in our Training Command.”
“When I took command, the first thing SSG Hwang did was demand a complete change-of-command inventory and put together a detailed plan to correct all the previous discrepancies,” the Colonel commanding SSG Hwang’s Brigade said. “We call this our Command Supply Discipline Program, which she personally maintains to this day. I couldn’t do it without her.”
Army helped with her application process for citizenship. SSG Hwang finally took an oath at an U.S. citizen ceremony in Pomona, CA. “Because I was in the military, they seated me in the front row.” In her freshly pressed uniform, she was called first on stage and was praised for serving the country. “I was honored and proud to be there.” It was then she realized that her dream had finally come true.
“Army structure offered more stability than the civilian world.” SSG Hwang is getting an accounting degree through the Army’s continued education program. The medical benefits help cover some of her family’s emergency care expenses. “I plan to retire after 20 years in the Army.”
A young immigrant from South Korea, who spoke little English, joined the Army to get her U.S. citizenship. Seven years later, SSG Hwang received the 2016 Supply Excellence Award from the US Army Reserve Command, 3-star Lieutenant General Jeffery Talley. The American dream is still robust. One can’t help but respect SSG Hwang’s resilience, determination, and sense of duty. If you’re inspired by her story, talk to a recruiter. Join the Army!