At the gates of Camp Henry: a mother’s sacrifice and a son’s journey home

Then-Capt. Jun Yi, pictured in 2006 with members of his company on Hill 303 near Camp Carroll, Republic of Korea. Photo By Sgt. 1st Class Adam Ross
Then-Capt. Jun Yi, pictured in 2006 with members of his company on Hill 303 near Camp Carroll, Republic of Korea. Photo By Sgt. 1st Class Adam Ross

At the gates of Camp Henry: a mother’s sacrifice and a son’s journey home

by Sgt. 1st Class Adam Ross
19th Expeditionary Sustainment Command

CAMP HENRY, Republic of Korea – For the hundreds of Soldiers and civilians who work on Camp Henry, entering through the security checkpoint at the installation’s main gate is a routine action, rarely given a second thought. But for Lt. Col. Jun Yi of 19th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, it can often be an emotional experience.

“My heart still thumps once in awhile coming through the gates,” said Yi.

These heart thumps are the result of Yi’s unique and sometimes traumatic upbringing, which left him with painful memories but also helped forge a successful military career. It was at the front gates of Camp Henry in 1973 when a military policeman guarding the post’s entrance was approached by a Korean woman carrying a bassinet. The woman placed the bassinet in the MP’s arms and quickly ran back across the street.

Inside the bassinet were two babies – Yi and his older sister. The woman was Yi’s mother.

Yi’s mother had once hoped to marry Womack and emigrate to the United States, but their relationship had recently fractured. She was also haunted by her own painful memories of growing up in Korea, and didn’t want her own children to experience a similar childhood.

“My mother was born in 1951, she was born to an African American father and a Korean mother, and raised in Korea as an Amerasian,” said Yi, whose maternal grandfather served with the U.S. Army during the Korean War. “Which was difficult at that time because there wasn’t a lot of (bi-racial) African American and Korean people at that time. She had a rough life.”

It would be nearly two decades until the children, born Lynda and Raymond Womack, Jr., would see their mother again.

“The reason she had to make that sacrifice, is she understood the pain she went through being raised in Korea as an Amerasian… and she didn’t want us to bear that pain,” said Yi. “She took a risk and was hoping my father would follow through and do the right thing.”

Sadly, as a young Soldier living in the barracks, Womack Sr. was unable to care for the children either, and took them to a local Daegu orphanage, where they were admitted and given Korean names. Although he has no memory of his days in the orphanage, the events that led to the exodus of Yi and his sister from the orphanage loom large in his life and would ultimately affect his decision to join the Army.

When Womack Sr.’s superior officer at what was then known as 19th General Support Command heard there were dependents living in a nearby orphanage, he called the Soldier into his office and ordered him to find a way to take care of his children -- or face the consequences.

“That commander was my guardian angel,” said Yi, who has been unable to identify the Army captain who counseled his father. “My father was given two choices – stay in the military or get chaptered out. My father only had a 5th grade education, so he didn’t have a lot of options.”

Womack Sr.’s commander and first sergeant accompanied him to the orphanage, where the children were picked up and later put in the custody of a Korean caretaker. Yi’s father paid the woman to watch over the children in her house, while he fulfilled his military duties.

But life outside the orphanage wasn’t much easier for Yi and his sister -- because of their bi-racial appearance, the children were never enrolled in a Korean school. Instead, much of their childhood was spent carrying out illegal tasks within the Daegu black market.

“The thing I remember from those days was the Sugar Daddy candy, that was my incentive,” said Yi of the once popular American candy. “So basically I would deliver the goods to a location, and if I returned we received the candy as incentive for coming back.”

Yi would see his father sporadically over the years, as he traveled back to Korea after being re-stationed in the United States. His home life in Daegu included living with the adult daughter of the Korean caretaker, and her bi-racial daughter who was close to Yi’s age. As an adolescent, Yi learned to speak Korean but was illiterate from the lack of schooling.

A major change in Yi’s childhood happened in the late 1970s, when his father received orders to be stationed in Camp Hialeah in Busan. After arriving in Korea, Womack Sr. married the caretaker’s daughter, and moved the entire family with him to Busan, and later to Seoul after receiving orders to work on U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan. By the mid-80s, his father was nearing 20 years of service and told an 11-year-old Yi about their next destination as a family: Tacoma, Wash., where his father would retire at nearby Fort Lewis.

But moving to the U.S. and starting a new life in America presented a new problem: there was no record of Yi’s birth since he was not born in a hospital, and he had not attended one day of school. After arriving at McChord Air Force Base on a military flight from Korea, Yi was enrolled in public school as Raymond Womack, Jr.

“I was the oldest kindergartener in history,” said Yi jokingly. “It wasn’t fun, because I had a speech impediment. I stuttered every word.”

Yi found hope in how he excelled at math, and he rapidly advanced through grade levels. But his life at home was still turbulent, as the caretaker and her extended family also moved with the Womacks to Tacoma. A particularly traumatic moment occurred when his sister was briefly taken away from the family by child protective services.

“She’s my heartbeat, she’s been there with me since the beginning,” Yi said of Lynda.

Yi found a powerful advocate for his education at Baker Middle School, where an English teacher helped him master his language skills for the first time.

“Ms. Swan, she invested a lot of time in me. I will never forget her,” said Yi. “She saw something in me. Stayed after school and worked with me, worked with me. ‘Ray, you got this.’ Instilled that confidence, which I never had that.”

But it was a newly-discovered skill that would put his life on a different track in high school.

“I tried football, which I had never played,” said Yi, who remembers tackling the quarterback on his first play – after being handed the ball as a running back. “I kinda figured out the game, and I excelled.”

At Tacoma’s Lincoln High School, Yi was teammates with future NFL stars Lawyer Milloy and Jon Kitna, and soon colleges started to take notice of his abilities. Rated as one of the top players in the state in 1992 by the Tacoma News Tribune, newspaper accounts of the speedy 6-foot, two-inch defensive back and wide receiver lauded his “sticky hands” but never mentioned his unique upbringing.

“I didn’t really share any of that with anybody, none of my friends knew,” said Yi.

Yi had football scholarship offers from many colleges, and ultimately chose to attend Washington State University. The child who once toiled on the streets of Daegu for candy and spoke no English, was now a key contributor for a WSU Cougars team that produced its best season since 1930, with a win in the 1994 Alamo Bowl. But a call from his father put in motion one of the most consequential moments of his life, one that would lead to him giving up football for a new purpose.

“He called and said ‘I found your mother,’” said Yi.

Womack Sr. had felt a new urgency to reconnect his children with their mother, and hired a private detective in Seoul. From this effort came a phone number, and when Lynda started to dial it she realized it was a local number.

“We lived on 96th street, she lived on 56th street (in Tacoma),” Yi said. “She got married, had a son, and came to the states. Her intent was always to find us.”

She was working at Fort Lewis at the time, and arranged a meeting on the installation with Yi and Lynda. Though he had never seen his mother, Yi recognized Sui Ki Kim immediately from a distance, and the two had an emotional embrace. Being able to talk to his mother brought the events of his early life into clearer focus for him.

“She’s my best friend. I understand why she did what she did. She did what she had to do, if it wasn’t for that …” said Yi, struggling to find the right words. “That’s very brave, that’s a sacrifice a lot of people can’t make. I applaud her for doing what she did.”

Learning more about the early years of his family, and reflecting on how differently his life could have played out led Yi to dramatically change his life path.

“For me the biggest impact was that company commander, that’s the reason I came into the military,” said Yi. “I thought about staying in and playing football, but when I met my mother, the one thing I could think of was that company commander at the time … that HHC commander changed the direction of our lives. If it wasn’t for him to tell my father to take care of those kids, my sister and I would have had a different life.”

With a new purpose in his life, Yi left football behind and entered the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at WSU. Before he commissioned as an armor officer, it was brought to Yi’s attention that he had no official documentation with his American name (Raymond Womack, Jr.) on it. The closest he had to a birth certificate was the adoption information from the Daegu orphanage in 1973, thus in 1998 he was commissioned as 2nd Lt. Jun Yi.

“It threw a lot of my friends for a loop,” Yi said of the name change. “It was difficult at first.”

Being in the Army allowed Yi the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of his earlier life, first as a company commander stationed at Camp Carroll in 2007. Korea is a place of rapid change, where neighborhoods can be replaced by modern buildings in quick succession, but Yi was able to find one of his childhood homes in the Itaewon neighborhood of Seoul where he lived while his father was stationed at Yongsan.

“I felt really blessed that I was able to get out of that situation and achieve what I did,” said Yi. “And amazingly, a month after I visited the whole place was demolished.”

Yi’s sister Lynda came back to Korea in the early 2000s as an English teacher and eventually becoming the head project director for American Insurance Group (AIG) in Seoul. His sister also experienced a similar connection to her past. Their mother, Kim, continued working on what is now Joint Base Lewis-McChord and is now the western manager for Vanguard, which supplies uniforms, medals and other accessories to the U.S. military.

“Her story is more amazing than my story,” Yi adds.

Yi wanted to close his military story at Camp Henry, the site of his mother’s fateful sacrifice. After initially being slated for a posting at the Pentagon, Yi is now the senior military intelligence officer for 19th ESC, working in the city of his birth for the organization that helped steer his life toward a more promising path. The 19th ESC assignment will be the last of his Army career, but he continues working on his ability to read and write Hangul so he may someday fulfill his next dream of becoming the U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Korea.

“I have a love for this country (Korea), and a love for the U.S. Army because they gave me a chance and opportunity to be what I am today,” said Yi. “Coming here has been a tremendous opportunity.”

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