Grace: Veterans' Honor Flight holds special meaning for Korean-American 'guardian' - Omaha.com
Published Saturday, October 26, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 1:20 pm
Grace: Veterans' Honor Flight holds special meaning for Korean-American 'guardian'

Tuesday morning, an Honor Flight will ferry 136 Nebraska veterans to the nation's capital for a one-day visit to their past.

These veterans of the Korean War — often called the “Forgotten War” — will see their sacrifice and service honored in a weighty symbol: 100 tons of polished California granite and 19 stainless steel statues that form the Korean War Veterans Memorial.

But perhaps the best symbol of their time in Korea will be standing right there, among them.

Her name is Carolyn Manhart. She is a 39-year-old Korean-American woman. She is the mother of four. She is one of two doctors and 21 helpers accompanying the vets on this trip. These helpers are called, appropriately, “guardians.”

Carolyn will be guarding the men who guarded the homeland of her parents, who were children during the Korean War. To them, it is a war that is anything but forgotten.

* * *

Seon Ya Pak remembers the last time she saw her father.

She was 7. He was sitting at the kitchen table hearing of Seon Ya's successes at school. Then he was gone, riding his bicycle through the streets of Seoul, surreptitiously delivering food to Catholic nuns forced into hiding.

It was 1950. The army from the communist North had pushed past the boundary, into the U.S.-established South. Everyone was frightened, and Seon Ya's father was trying to help.

North Korean soldiers found him and Seon Ya's older sister. They released the sister but kept the father, and Seon Ya never saw him again. Seon Ya's stricken mother sent her two youngest children to live with family in the countryside. She went to work, learning to make coffee for the American GIs who were pouring into Seoul and elsewhere in South Korea.

Myung Su Chey remembers when the Americans came. He remembers seeing their tanks roll in.

He was 11 and cheered the airplanes and the soldiers who tossed gum and candy to him and the others.

He was 11 and scared at night when the bombs fell.

The war was horrible. What followed the war was horrible. Everyone was very poor. The country was in ruins. Meals were rice and eggs and butter from Catholic Relief Services.

School was their salvation.

School also was where Seon Ya Pak and Myung Su Chey found the names they would end up using in America.

At Sogang University in Seoul, the Jesuit priests called Seon Ya by her baptismal name, “Agatha.” Less than a mile away, at Yonsei University, Myung Su converted to Catholicism and was baptized “Paul.”

They never met in Korea. A mutual acquaintance introduced Agatha to Paul through writing, and the two became overseas pen pals.

By then Paul had moved with his family to the United States. Agatha was finishing up her philosophy degree.

When she graduated, the Jesuits helped her get to California.

She looked up her only friend in America, Paul.

Three months later, the two were married.

Paul got degrees in electrical engineering and held various engineering jobs. Agatha gave birth to three daughters, including Carolyn, and sandwiched in college when she could, taking accounting classes. She eventually opened a clothing store, which she ran for two decades.

They worked hard and were active in their suburban Los Angeles community. They gave their daughters a middle-class American childhood and paid for their college education, which included medical school at Creighton University for Carolyn.

* * *

Omaha is where Carolyn Chey met Nick Manhart.

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They are raising four children in a brick Dutch Colonial in midtown, with a tree swing in the backyard. Nick stays home to juggle the kids' busy schedules, and Carolyn is an internist at Alegent Creighton's Dundee clinic. They have a good life. They have a happy life.

They have a life that would not have happened had President Harry S. Truman and the U.N. Security Council not sent all those troops into Korea between 1950 and 1953.

And so they are grateful.

Carolyn, who has accompanied World War II vets on a prior Honor Flight, asked if she could go on this one. She was one of 80 applicants to be a guardian.

Her parents, of course, are thrilled, and they tell me so during a phone interview at Carolyn's family room table.

Paul and Agatha Chey say their daughter's role on this trip is an honor.

They say it's a way they can belatedly deliver a message they say their family, friends and Korean-born neighbors share:

Thank you.

Thank you, veterans. Thank you to the more than 54,000 who gave their lives. And thank you to the parents who had to live with gut-wrenching anxiety while their sons and daughters served.

“We love the Americans,” Agatha Chey said.

“We really appreciate,” Paul Chey said.

So does Carolyn. As her folks shared their gratitude, she sat there and cried.

“Without the Korean War vets,” she said, “we would be just like the North Koreans, who are so impoverished. They are starving. They are deceived. They have no religious freedom, no freedom of speech.”

“And look,” she continues, “at our life here.”

I do. I see kids' artwork hanging on the walls and a beautiful magnolia tree out the window. I see family photos all over the place.

I see a grateful woman who is a symbol of what these old soldiers achieved.

Contact the writer: Erin Grace

erin.grace@owh.com    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

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