Chasing opportunity to fulfill a dream

  • Published
  • By Dave Smith
  • 21st Space Wing Public Affairs
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)

All children have dreams and it was no different for Lt. Col. Brett Chung growing up in Nagoya, Japan. Coming to the United States was something Chung thought about on a regular basis. Now many years later, he has not only fulfilled his youthful dream of coming to America he has seized opportunity, becoming a successful military dentist.

"Even when I was a child it was my dream to come to the United States; a lot of Japanese children want that," said Chung, of the 21st Medical Group. "This is like a dream country. There is a lot of opportunity."

He first came to the U.S. as a 17-year-old high school student attending classes in Centerberg, Ohio. It was the first of several times he would shuttle between America and Japan, alternating schooling here with working in Japan to fund his next round of college. Chung returned to Japan and worked for a year. During that time he not only saved money, but he also gained experience in a number of career fields including restaurant jobs, tutoring, hotel front desk, and even as an attendant in a Pachinko parlor. All of these positions would eventually help develop his chairside manner as a dentist.

He returned to the U.S. landing in Virginia where his father lived. He graduated from Northern Virginia Community College and transferred to Idaho State University on the advice of a friend. He completed his studies in Idaho with a bachelor's degree in biology in 1994 and it was back to Japan to prepare for dental school. After a year back in Japan, Chung returned to the U.S. this time back to Ohio and Case Western Reserve University for dental school. He graduated in 1999, becoming a U.S. citizen during his senior year, and faced a time of decision as to where he would practice his dental skills.

Chung settled on the U.S. Navy, embarking on a six-year career. During that time his younger brother was considering the military and Chung offered this advice: join the Air Force. He was able to compare the two services and determined that the Air Force would also be a good fit for him, so in 2006 he left the Navy as a lieutenant commander and the very next day entered the Air Force.

Chung overcame several obstacles to get where he is today. First there were the cultural challenges, especially where school was concerned. Chung said he was surprised at the casual environment in school.

"It was very informal. Students were eating apples during class and chewing gum," he said. "Here it was OK to ask questions, it was a very free environment and you could open up."

Speaking and understanding English were difficult. Chung was not able to keep up with the speed at which native speakers used English. He also struggled with pronunciation. But he excelled at the universal subjects.

"Math, chemistry, physics, they were all easy. English, social studies and economics were difficult," Chung said. He said he got a D grade in economics one time but only because the teacher had mercy on him.

Chung's language skills have come a long way. He said he still struggles sometimes when trying to express himself and occasionally people do not understand what he is telling them. However, his bilingual skills opened doors for him in the Air Force. Chung has served as an interpreter for the chief of staff of the Japanese air force at a leadership meeting and was invited to do so again.

It is opportunities like this, and those for education and career, Chung appreciates most about his new country.

"This is like a dream country with a lot of opportunity," he said. "People do not realize the opportunities available compared to people in other countries. I felt like if I tried hard the opportunity is here. I am glad for the opportunity for education and for the opportunity to excel."

Part of why he entered the military is to pay back the country providing those opportunities. He has helped provide assistance to others through involvement in things like Operation Tomodachi, providing disaster relief following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. He also served as lead medical planner for Pacific Angel Indonesia in 2013 while stationed at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, coordinating medical and dental services as part of the program. Chung volunteers as a soccer coach, too.

He is still undecided about his future. With 16 years of active duty, he could retire in four years or he could continue his Air Force career, but has not come up with a decision yet. Or maybe he will become an inventor.

"I am very creative, I like to invent things," he said. "Right now I am inventing dental equipment at home." His invention will make it easier to floss regularly.

For now, Chung is content to work with his patients on Peterson Air Force Base and enjoy the relationship he has with his fellow dentists. There is good camaraderie among dentists in the Air Force, he said.