‘Facing Stigma’ with Suji Choi

“I was born in Seoul, South Korea and moved to Rockville, Maryland when I was 11. Moving here was definitely an adjustment on many levels. I didn’t grow up with a normal family dynamic by either country’s standards. My dad stayed in South Korea because his job didn’t translate here so it was just my mom, my sister and I who came to the United States. A lot changed for me because my mom didn’t speak English and I was the one tasked with translating. When we arrived at LAX she pulled me aside and said, “You’re in charge of us now.” Most 11 year-olds don’t have to speak for their family and know how to run a household. I didn’t necessarily do it voluntarily, but it was what I had to do to help us make it. Immigration is difficult even if everything works out like it’s supposed to, but things weren’t so smooth for my family. Once I graduated high school, my plan was to go to college, go to med school, and become a doctor. That was it. That all got derailed during my first semester at NYU. They pulled my financial aid because my family was still in the middle of the process to become a permanent resident. After my financial aid was pulled I had to move back to Maryland and figure out my next step, while waiting on immigration. I knew I eventually wanted to go back to college so I started looking at the military as my next possible option. I didn’t know much about the military before going in but decided to join the Navy after we finally got our green cards after 3 years. I only had two options for jobs the day I went to MEPS because I couldn’t get a security clearance since I was not a citizen, so I picked Aviation Structural Mechanic. I had a prototypical military experience as far as the Navy goes. I was sent out to sea on a couple different deployments for six months. Ultimately, it helped me shape who I am today.

After doing four years I knew I wanted to make the transition out and go back to school. I started attending Columbia straight out of the Navy, and after a couple of semesters I started to have difficulties getting even the simplest things done. All the things I had experienced in my life sort of hit me at once after I got out of the military. Luckily, I had a professor who really encouraged her students to seek help. She told us that you didn’t have to have a single traumatic life altering event to go to therapy, and that it was okay to seek help when you didn’t feel like you were functioning at your 100%. I think hearing that gave me permission to reach out, that I couldn’t give myself. Going through therapy has been difficult because now I have to finally face how different my life was and unpack feelings that have been suppressed for so long. I’ve only recently started realizing how much better I’ve gotten and how much of an impact therapy has made. I’m starting to make peace with my past, because now I realize going through that gave me a more defined trajectory in terms of what I want to do. My plan is still to become a doctor, either back in the military or through working with veterans. Being here at Headstrong, in an environment where everyone is so passionate about helping people, has really helped to stay focused on my future plans.”

Healing the hidden wounds of war