Back from a world away
By Ben Badua
Nearly 7,000 miles away from Western
Massachusetts, Jae Heo of the Amherst men’s soccer team sat
quietly, reading in one of the two Starbucks cafes in his hometown
of Changwon, South Korea.
Having scored 12 goals in his debut season with the Lord Jeffs en route to a national semifinal appearance, he proudly wore his Amherst sweatshirt while on winter break in 2008, knowing full well what awaited him in just six short months: the beginning of a two-year stint with the South Korean army as part of his nation’s mandatory military service requirement.
Sitting alone, he noticed a group of college-aged kids (two American, two Korean). They were speaking in English, a rarity on the southern tip of the peninsula.
“Seeing my Amherst sweatshirt on my way out, one of the Koreans stopped me and asked if I went to school in the States,” recalls Heo. “It turns out that he was a graduate of Bowdoin and an officer teaching English at the Naval Academy. He handed me his business card and I contacted him the next day.”
Following that chance encounter with officer Wan Ki Park, Heo switched his enlistment from the army to the navy and in June found himself at the R.O.K Naval Academy, half a world away from the Pioneer Valley but just 15 minutes from his boyhood home. Arriving on the first Monday of the month along with 600 other new recruits, Heo was suddenly faced with his new reality.
“I couldn’t quite grasp being in the military until the day I got to the base,” says Heo. “I heard from many people that boot camp was going to be tough. I was kind of anxious and scared, not necessarily about the physical rigors but the mental stuff.”
After listening to formal speeches from the Admiral and Head of Parents, Heo said goodbye to his family and snapped last-minute photos.
“Next thing you know there were 20 training guards,” Heo says. “They started blowing whistles, yelling orders and putting us back into rows. They had these rings on their boots that would make a sound whenever they walked so you could hear them coming. The louder that sound got, the more everybody started to get nervous.”
Entering the navy as a seaman apprentice, Heo survived on three small meals a day consisting of: rice, kimchi and a bowl of soup. He dropped nearly 20 pounds during basic training. For the next four weeks, Heo endured a grueling regimen designed to transform him into a soldier. Days began with a shower at 5:30 a.m. and ended with military drills at 10:30 p.m.
Educated at the Pennington School in
Princeton, N.J., Heo is fluent in English, a skill he eventually
parlayed into a sought-after position at the academy following boot
“During the second month of training someone from the English department came to interview me for a teaching assistant opening,” says Heo. “Those positions were so rare and unique, but I impressed the interviewer and got a spot.”
Needing to attain four stripes or the rank of petty officer 2nd class before being allowed to return to civilian life, Heo spent the remainder of his tenure as one of 12 English teaching assistants at the naval academy. He graded assignments, translated documents, tutored cadets and even taught class.
Amherst was never far from Heo’s thoughts. Soon after earning the right to make phone calls and access the Internet he began calling his teammates to catch up and talk soccer, usually for 20 to 30 minutes at a time (without giving much thought to his parent’s long distance phone bill).
“Every chance I got I would check the Amherst website to see how the guys were doing,” says Heo. “More than anything, I just missed being with them. The team was about brotherhood, caring and love and it was what I missed the most.”
“Every time we talked to him you could sense that Amherst was the place he wanted to be,” says teammate James Mooney, a senior. “Being in completely different time zones, we would get calls at these absurd hours. I remember talking to him at 4 a.m. sometimes. During my sophomore year he even called us before one of our games and we put him on speaker phone. He said some things to the team and that got those of us that knew him motivated.”
Continuing to serve as the team’s biggest cheerleader south of the 38th parallel, the days quickly turned to weeks and the weeks into months as Heo’s time with the navy drew to a close. Completing his service obligation this past summer, he interned as a research assistant at the Boston Consulting Group’s Seoul office before returning to Amherst.
Having only kicked around the ball with the naval academy’s soccer assistants a couple times a month over the last two years, Heo was understandably anxious when he first stepped back onto Hitchcock Field for the Jeffs’ preseason workouts.
“I was frustrated because after not playing for two years, my touches weren’t as sharp and my instincts were a little shaky,” says Heo. “During practices we would have shooting drills, but I just couldn’t score. It started to get in my head. I was being negative and losing my confidence.”
Mooney and fellow teammate Lennard Kovacs, a
senior, continued to encourage Heo. “I just told him
he’d be fine,” said Kovacs. “Soccer is your
passion. It’s inherent. It may take two or three weeks to get
your touches back, but it will come to you.”
Kovacs was right. It started with a goal in the team’s annual preseason alumni game. Then another in the squad’s season-opener against Colby-Sawyer. Before long he’d added three more goals and an assist against Bates and Middlebury. His reward was a NESCAC Player of the Week honor and a 5-0 start for his beloved Jeffs. It was almost as if he’d never left. But despite his early-season success, an older, more mature and more appreciative Heo didn’t lose sight of what was important: team first, everything else second.
“At the end of the day, I don’t care how many goals I score,” says Heo. “It’s about teamwork. My mentality this year is just to do whatever I can to help the team win.”
To that end, Heo emailed his teammates to dedicate his NESCAC Player of the Week award to each of them – a gesture that impressed head coach Justin Serpone.
“Dating back to his first year Jae’s always had a big personality, but he wasn’t necessarily a leader,” says Serpone. “Now he’s absolutely turned into a leader and I definitely credit some of that to his time in the military.”
Settling back into the life he left two years ago, things have come full circle for Heo. Gone is his daily military routine, replaced by an equally regimented, yet wholly different existence as a student-athlete. His next (and possibly more daunting) challenge? Hitting the books and getting re-acclimated to the rigors of academic life.
“Honestly, I went to my first couple of classes not knowing what they were talking about,” Heo says with a smile. “Being away for two years I feel like I’ve forgotten a lot of what I learned during my first year, but my motto since the military has just been to stay disciplined and love to do what you hate. I’m more mature now and I take things more seriously. That’s helped me in soccer. Maybe it can also help me boost my GPA.”