Jae Lee, a senior majoring in political science and philosophy, may at first glance look like any other student at Vanderbilt. But at 24 years old, he has job experience that few other seniors can claim: two years of service in the South Korean military.
Lee, of Cheongju, South Korea, entered Vanderbilt as a freshman in 2008; however, the summer before his sophomore year, he decided to join the South Korean military. The government had exempted him from the normally mandatory military service and instead offered him the option of doing social service. Despite this, Lee decided that he wanted to follow the path of his father and grandfather by joining the military.
“I believe that duty comes before rights,” Lee said. “So, before I claim my rights as a South Korean citizen, I thought that I should have fulfilled all of my duties. One of those duties I believe is military service.”
After filling out paperwork for Vanderbilt and getting administrative approval, Lee joined the South Korean military as a private in May 2009. He served until March 2011, when he left as a sergeant.
In the military, Lee served in administrative support for battalions, and he led his battalion in physical training and battle simulations.
“During boot camp, I was the squad leader for a battle simulation with fake machine guns and enemies,” Lee said. “I was supposed to divide my battalion into two teams before I told them to charge the enemy with bayonets, but I forgot. As soon as I said ‘charge,’ my team drill sergeant stopped me, brought my battalion and me down the hill and told me I gave the wrong order.”
Lee said that when he and his team were punished for the mistake, he begged to be allowed to do all of the punishment himself, since it was his fault the simulation was done incorrectly. Although his sergeant denied this request, Lee said that none of his fellow soldiers were angry with him, congratulating him instead after they eventually finished the simulation.
“At that point, I really felt a sense of brotherhood, and that experience has made me more of a perfectionist,” Lee said.
During the time of Lee’s service, South Korea was attacked by North Korea twice. On March 26, 2010, a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors. Nearly six months later, North Korea opened fire on Yeonpyeong, a South Korean border island, killing four and wounding 18.
“I thought there was going to be a war,” Lee said regarding the attack on Yeonpyeong. “I had injured my ankle at the time and I was in the hospital, but I unwrapped my ankle and ran to headquarters. I was really angry when I saw that North Korea was actually capable of attacking and killing.”
Aside from his duties in battalion support, Lee also served as a VIP interpreter for the G20 Summit in Seoul in 2010. However, he has sworn to keep a majority of his military duties classified.
Violence is an expected element of military service, but it’s not what Lee focuses on when he looks back on those two years.
“I see the military as the place to learn how to protect people and freedom rather than the place to learn how to kill people,” Lee said. “I get a lot of questions about whether I know to kill people, but that’s not what I learned from my military service. I learned dignity from protecting people, responsibility from supporting my colleagues and honor from being a citizen.”
Lee’s brother, James, followed his path and also joined the South Korean military after his freshman year at Vanderbilt. James finished his military service in February 2013 and has returned to Vanderbilt as his brother’s roommate to continue on with his sophomore year.
Fueled by his desire to help others, Lee plans on either joining academia in the field of philosophy or becoming involved with an international organization that seeks to fight global poverty or inequality.
“I had a very narrow view of the world before my service,” Lee said. “However, the world is so much bigger than what I previously thought and I now see the bigger picture of our society.”