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Commentary: Turning adversity into opportunity

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Abbey Rieves
  • 17th Training Wing Public Affairs

A short, skinny little boy slings his backpack over his shoulders at the end of the school day in ’93. Seven-year-old Samuel, or Sammy as his friends call him, starts walking back to his family’s two-bedroom apartment.

He’s lived in that apartment his whole life with his mother and two younger siblings.

At seven years old, Sammy doesn’t understand why he can’t eat candies like the other kids or how come his dinners arrive in boxes.  

His shaggy, jet-black hair blows in the warm Californian breeze as he veers his footsteps left and takes the shortcut down an alleyway.

The young boy has vague memories of what happens next, before waking up in the hospital, but remembers his attackers were people who didn’t look like him.

“I thought that lifestyle was normal,” said Tech. Sgt. Samuel Han. “Until I joined the military. Then I realized life isn’t as difficult as I grew up.”

Years later, the then 20-year old Korean-American, who was working two jobs to pay for his full-time college, finally told his mother he would burn out if the candle stayed lit at both ends.

Persevering through his difficulties, he enlisted into the Air Force as a Korean Cryptologic Language Analyst in 2006.

While Han’s life and Air Force career started out with adversity, through positive mentorship and sought opportunities, he overcame his misfortunes.

Though the 316th Training Squadron instructor was raised with western values and spoke in English, he always recognizes his heritage.

“I remember my mom always saying, ‘Be proud to be an American, but you are a Korean,’” said Han. “And that’s how I’ve always lived. I had to be proud of my culture, where I came from, but I also had to be proud of where I was born.”

With intentions to see the world and to learn more about the Korean language and heritage he wasn’t raised with, Han finished the first phase of his Air Force training by graduating the Defense Language Institute in the Presidio of Monterey, Calif., as a distinguished graduate with the Commandant's Award.

From DLI, Han arrived at Goodfellow in 2007, to train through the second phase in his Air Force analyst job, but experienced misfortune along the way.

“Midway through, I bumped heads with my instructor,” said Han. “But I was receiving good grades.”

After the loss of a stripe from matters with his instructor, Han questioned his opportunities in the Air Force.

“I was very disgruntled and angered with how badly my career started,” said Han, who now holds a line number for Master Sgt. “There were a lot of times I felt, ‘What’s the point?’ I thought joining the military was an opportunity, but one little hiccup and misfortune hovered over me and my career for the next three years.”

Han pushed to prove his paper-trail record wrong and to overcome the adversity.

“I surrounded myself with positive people, people who supported me,” said Han. “Rather than doing it alone, I had a good support system. I truly thought of them as family. Them telling me, ‘It will be okay,’ helped me overcome that early stage of adversity.”

On an overseas assignment, Han met his wife, Erin, who is a significant and positive influence in his life. 

“When we got married in 2014, he was misguided by a lot of his military supervisors and had a hard time finding success,” said Erin. “I told him that he needed to look deep inside and find his purpose for serving in the Air Force. I told him to not worry about what people say about him. His heart was always at a good place and he could do whatever he put his mind to.”

With his wife’s support, Han found the motivation and courage to not only test for Staff Sgt. at his 8-year enlistment mark, but to be a positive influence to every person he encounters.

“I have a specific goal, the reason why I wear this uniform each and every day,” said Han. “I want to change the culture, the way people think when it comes to having an opportunity. You must seek opportunities because they are not given out.”

Observing from his own negative experiences and missed opportunities, Han understands the power of having a positive support system.

“The biggest thing to understand about adversity is that you can’t do this alone.” said Han, who with the help of his mentors and leadership, achieved Second Air Force NCO of the year for 2020. “For the first couple years in my military career, I realized that I was selfish, I needed to change and do better. Receiving that Article 15 has helped me to understand.”

In addition to having a support system, Han charges fellow Air Force members to be the support system.

“A support system is so crucial in the success of someone’s career,” said Han, pressing at the little brown book he carries. “We have the freedom in our Air Force to do more than what is in this book.”

Han’s experiences demonstrate how he sought opportunity and chose to not let the obstacles and adversity he experienced hold weight through his career.

From achieving the United States Air Force Language Professional of the Year and Distinguished Graduate at NCOA, Han is a living testimony that turning adversity into opportunity can be done.

 “At some point in your career, you might hear negativity and you might face negativity,” said Han. “But know this: that is just an obstacle you can overcome, and many do.”