HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- A Korean native stationed here was one of the first Airmen to join the Air Force and earn his U.S. citizenship through the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest Program. Senior Airman Seung-Jae Oh, a U.S. Air Force Special Operations School cultural advisor, was one of seven Airmen selected for the Air Force MAVNI pilot program.
The MAVNI pilot program allowed the Defense Department to recruit up to 1,000 non-citizens who didn't have permanent resident status, but had been in the U.S. legally for at least two years. The recruits needed to possess critical skills the military needed like medical, foreign language, and/or cultural expertise.
Oh said he stumbled across the MAVNI program in a Korean-language community newspaper during his third semester at the University of Notre Dame. He said he was attracted to the benefits and decided to apply. "I came to the United States as a teenager with my family," he said. "I was 'Americanized' and I didn't want to leave. I really wanted to earn the right to be a citizen in an honest way. Plus, I was struggling financially with college tuition, so the GI Bill could really help me."
However, joining wasn't only about the benefits. Oh said he wanted to give back to the United States and serve with honor and distinction. So far, he's deployed to Korea twice in support of training exercises and proved MAVNIs can be very useful in enhancing mission effectiveness. He's also trying to extend his enlistment so he can fill a 365-day deployment by the end of the summer. Oh was a very motivated team player, according to his Army supervisor on his latest deployment. "He sought out every training opportunity possible during (exercise) Balance-Knife, including a six-hour night movement over rough terrain," said U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Chadd Kuhn, with Company B, 2nd Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group Airborne.
During the exercise, Oh translated and interpreted conversations between roughly 100 U.S. and South Korean special operations forces personnel. "I did both literal and figurative translation," Oh said. "Translating technical terms, jargon, and acronyms that (Republic of Korea) personnel were relatively familiar didn't require too much thinking. However, when they referred to ideas, people, events, or customs that were not well known outside the culture associated with the language, I added some background information to facilitate the communication." Oh said he would translate/interpret the statement without making any changes, but then follow it up with some clarification based on his read of the speaker's intention. "I also took care to ensure that this added information, which did not come from the speaker but from me, did not contradict the message being transmitted," he said. "Subtle nuances are difficult to get across in a different language, but I did my best to preserve them as well." Kuhn said Oh's technical expertise allowed the entire group to communicate and train effectively.
"For two of the six-week deployment, Oh was the only interpreter present for training," Kuhn said. "This required him to translate 10 to 12 hours a day." Oh said South Korean soldiers often regretted their level of English was not high enough to get their point across without relying on linguists. As a result, Oh said he helped them out by attending social gatherings.
"As time went on, both sides were somehow able to communicate better without going through an intermediary," Oh said as he laughed. When he's not deployed, Oh is fully integrated into the academic courses at USAFSOS, said his supervisor, Master Sgt. Leslie VanBelkum, a USAFSOS language-enabled combat advisor. Oh has briefed USAFSOS students on Korean culture during several different courses throughout the year, VanBelkum said. "MAVNIs like Oh are a huge benefit to us because they can see both the American and their native countries' perspective with ease," he said. "They are so valuable because unlike some linguists, the language and culture just comes naturally to them."
Oh is now part of the MAVNI working group, which is focused on improving the program. "The expedited process to become a citizen was a bit complicated when I went through it," Oh said. "The program was new and only a very few people on base were familiar with it. One of the biggest changes we made was eliminating tech school. The new Air Force MAVNIs will go straight into their jobs at USAFSOS after basic training." Oh also dedicates his spare time to tutor Korean linguists who are stationed here, VanBelkum said. "Oh is the brightest and most dedicated Airman I have ever had the pleasure of serving with," he said. "His life experiences have helped American SOF bridge the cultural divide and build long-lasting partnerships."