True resilience: how a Korean orphan became an American Airman

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Jake Richmond
  • U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds Public Affairs
Someone once told U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Holly Mays that people either completely forget or vividly remember their most traumatic experiences. That's the only way she can explain her fragmented recollections of the day she became an orphan, at less than two years old.

It was roughly 37 years ago when two women brought her to a street corner in South Korea and set her down on the sidewalk. As they turned to walk away, they told her to just stay there and wait.

So, she stayed. She cried for a long time.

"It got dark. It was cold. I remember my diaper was soaking wet," she says.

Sometime after sundown, two male figures picked her up and brought her to a building full of uniformed people. It should have marked the end of the worst day of anyone's life. For her, it was only the beginning of a long childhood of torment.

Life, for an orphan, isn't supposed to be easy.

She was brought to a large Christian orphanage. Like many orphanages, affection was as scarce as the resources. They named her Kim In Sook, gave her unmemorable food, and assigned her a specific space on the cold, hard floor for sleeping.

Mays says the faith teaching is the only positive memory she has from her five-plus years at the orphanage.

"I didn't know why I was on Earth," she says. "It gave me something to believe."

Beliefs were better than nothing. But the important thing was to stay "focused on surviving," which amounted to a constant effort to follow the strict rules of the institution. She often failed.

She says she struggled with discipline many times, and it culminated with her sleep habits. Almost every night, she unconsciously urinated all over her floor space and was repeatedly found sleeping outside her designated rectangle. Morning after morning, she woke up to angry nuns berating her.

Life, for an orphan, isn't supposed to be calm.

Eventually, the orphanage staff rounded up several of their biggest troublemakers, including six-year-old Kim In Sook, and decided to find somewhere else for them to live. A small group of adults from a nearby all-girls orphanage came and led the delinquent group on a long walk to their new home.

It was better there. The adults were kinder, there were fewer girls sharing space, and they even went to a local grade school. But the education experience wasn't exactly typical.

"Picture a girl at public school with raggedy clothes, who smelled and had no money."

They couldn't pay for lunch at school, and there was never enough food at the orphanage. She and the other girls were always hungry.

"Hungry and thirsty," she says pointedly.

Life, for an orphan, isn't supposed to be fulfilling.

And her bed, again, was a plot of hard floor. There was no heat in her building. The below-freezing winter temperatures made their sleeping quarters nearly unbearable for months at a time. Every day, they warmed enormous charcoal bricks in a huge furnace, and then someone placed the bricks in special slots under the floors. One brick per room. The youngest girls slept closest to the warm center. As an eight-year-old, Kim In Sook was relegated to the frigid space along the walls.

About two years later, she met an American Soldier and his wife. They were stationed in Korea, and they began regularly volunteering at the orphanage. They immediately took a special interest in Kim In Sook, seeking her out every time they came. She tried to hold her excitement at bay, always aware that nothing truly good had ever happened to her.

"By age 8, I'd never been shown love," Mays says. "Nobody gave me hugs or kisses or pats on the back. But from being at school and hearing stories, I knew about moms and dads. I knew there was such a thing as love, and I wanted it."

The couple kept visiting. They kept talking to her, and they kept making her smile. She found herself crying when they left, believing every visit was their last.

The orphanage staff frequently reminded her that no one would ever adopt a girl her age, so she was shocked when the military couple wanted to "try her out" for a weekend at home. She resolved to stay on her best behavior, and she did. The two-day visit led to another, and another, until she found herself staying for a week at a time.

Her dangerous hopes were realized less than a year after meeting the military couple. Unable to have kids of their own, they decided to adopt her. They renamed her Holly, and she was happy.

Life, for an orphan, isn't supposed to be happy.

The lonely, disconnected existence of public care facilities was a thing of the past. In its place was a new world of verbal, emotional, physical, and even sexual abuse. Her parents then adopted another Korean child, this one a baby, and Holly immediately felt forgotten by her mother. Resentment flourished and flowed in all its dysfunctional directions.

"I still feel bad," Mays says. "I was such a mean big sister."

The family moved to Maryland, but nothing got better. The abuse, in all its forms, continued. She remembers her father retired there, when Holly was about 12. Roughly two years later, they moved again, this time to Florida. That's where her adoptive parents finally separated and later divorced.

She was free from her father's abuse, but left alone with a mother who doted on the younger daughter and treated Holly with vicious disdain.

At school, she didn't fit in. Some kids outright bullied her. Many others were just content to remind her, every day, how different she looked, how different she talked.

"I felt I had no friends, no family. I didn't see any future. I didn't see how it could get any better. Or worse."

Three years went by, in a "living hell." She wanted to commit suicide and considered it several times. For a long time, the only thing that stopped her was her belief -- instilled at the Christian orphanage -- that it was an unforgivable sin. She was simply too scared to kill herself.

But that fear, too, would be replaced by another, more imminent one: teen pregnancy.

That was Holly's reality, a few months after meeting her first boyfriend. When she imagined her mother's reaction, there was no coping. She was terrified, and she lost the last sliver of hope she had. Finally, she had a problem she just couldn't handle.

The next morning, after years of imagining it, she made the real decision to take her own life. She would do it that night, after school.

She gave all her valuables to her sister, "just like our suicide awareness training tells us," and told her she loved her. Then, she went to her mom's medicine cabinet and secured a bottle of sleeping pills.

Life, for an orphan, isn't supposed to be worth living.

She went to school and spent her first couple of classes serenely enjoying the thought of being done with life. "That day, I was at peace," Mays recalls.

Suddenly, she felt the urge to go the restroom. She went. A few minutes later, to her immense surprise, she realized she wasn't pregnant after all. She was never pregnant -- just late. A wave of intense emotion cascaded over her.

"I sat there in the stall and cried," Mays says. "It was a huge turning point for me. I actually felt happy that I didn't have to kill myself, and I thanked God for a second chance.

"I went home and hugged my sister and tried to start living a positive life."

She got a job at a local grocery store, where she met a 22-year-old Army Soldier. She tried not to fall for him, but she did. He asked her to marry him. First, she said no. Then she thought about life away from her mother, and she said yes. She was only 17.

After she graduated, they moved to Fort Campbell, Ky. At first, it was good. She thought she had finally found love and security.

It wasn't long before she was introduced to the angry version of her husband. Soon, he was beating her with the same intensity and regularity as her mother had. But she knew life could be worse, and she desperately wanted to be done with her tragic past. She knew she could endure it, so she did.

One day, less than a year later, her husband announced he didn't love her anymore. He wanted a divorce.

Part of her couldn't believe it was happening. The other part of her -- the narrator of her hardened memories -- wasn't surprised. She had no reason to believe she was lovable.

Depression and loneliness, her most reliable companions, returned to her. For several months, she was just "existing." She had no idea what to do with herself.

Life, for an orphan, isn't supposed to be purposeful.

Holly Mays will never forget the day she saw the Air Force commercial on TV. For the first time in days, she found herself abruptly, thoughtfully attentive.

She knew about the military from her father and, later, her husband. She realized the Air Force might be able to give her a good, stable life. At that point, it was all she wanted. She called the local recruiting office a few minutes after the commercial ended.

"I just wanted to find a place where I belonged."

As it turned out, she belonged right away, and she hasn't stopped belonging for 17-plus years.

"I feel the Air Force gave me a second chance at life," she says. "I'm healthy, I'm happy, and I'm loved by so many people. People actually describe me as a positive person."

One reason for that is her current job, which gives her plenty of opportunities to show her smile. As a member of the Thunderbirds, the Air Force's official jet demonstration team, Mays gets to travel around the country and talk to thousands of young kids at air shows. She knows some of them are going through difficult childhoods like hers, so she tries to share her hard-won optimism.

According to Air Force Instruction 1-1, "Air Force Culture," paragraph 1.5, Airmen "must strive to be resilient: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually prepared to meet the challenges inherent to being a member of a fighting force." Challenges, of course, are relative. Resilience is transcendent.

"It's easy to spend your time sulking in your misery, but I want them to know that every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around," she says. "You don't have to live the life that's laid out for you."

Holly Mays stopped living her old life the day she decided to join the Air Force.

She doesn't know the name her real parents gave her, but she's got five stripes on her sleeve and an impressive duty title. She barely passed elementary school, but she'll soon have her master's degree. She doesn't know when she was born, but she knows she's two-point-five years away from a comfortable retirement.

She doesn't claim to have any unique toughness or wisdom derived from her years of struggle, but she understands how resilience can pay off.

Life, for an orphan, isn't supposed to be good. But for one orphan who became an Airman, it finally is.