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Cadet Pae's parents had a special respect for the U.S. military, the kind that is unique to liberated people. During the Korean War, American G.I.s gave Pae's father Hyongchol Pae their rations when he was a starving refugee from bombed-out Seoul. They eventually taught him English on a Korean air base and helped him immigrate to the U.S., where he could thrive as an artist, raise a family. From his vantage point in history, the artist Pae had quietly drawn the connections between the U.S. military and freedom.
So he supported his son's decision to go to West Point, with the idea that Pae would study business and build his management and leadership skills. "After growing up in a Korean family, West Point is a breeze," says Pae's roommate, Steve Kim. Stripped of their civilian lives, cadets cherish what they have, polishing cheap shoes to perfection and meticulously caring for each of the five items of civilian clothing that Firsties--as seniors are called at West Point--are allowed to own. In Pae's case, those are immigrant values as well. It may be an imagined past or an idealized vision of the immigrant present, but there was something about the earnestness of West Point that fit Pae snugly. "People think that because my dad's an artist, that means he's in the backyard smoking weed or something," he says. "It's not like that. My parents are conservative. They have a hard-work ethic. Very Korean values."
If over the first two years Pae grew more comfortable, his parents, or at least his mother Okbun Pae, grew less so. It seemed as if the values they had instilled in their son--to set goals, accept responsibility for your actions, keep your promises--were driving him closer to danger in a war they didn't understand. His mother cried when she saw a newspaper photo of soldiers sleeping in a ditch they dug for themselves during the initial push into Iraq. Pae made light of it--"They looked comfortable to me, Mom." But to this day, her worrying abides--pride and fear marching step for step. "Every time I read a newspaper article or see on TV these boys dying, on both sides," she says through an interpreter, "my heart hurts." Her voice cracks on that last phrase. A devout Catholic, she says she just tries to release. "I don't think about the politics. There's nothing I can do if he goes there. I just pray for his safe return," she says.
But in time, Pae's parents came to see a larger debt being repaid. "I came to this country with an empty fist," says Hyongchol. "But now we own a house, have two sons. We have enjoyed so much here, and I always have felt like I was riding on a train without a ticket." For a family that journeyed to this country for artistic freedom, it took a soldier of a son to finally pay the fare.