Honored Role Series (Part 5): Hae-Sue Park – Getting Out of the Comfort Zone

This is the fifth installment in the weekly Honored Role Series.

When Liet. Col. Hae-Sue Park retired from the Army two years ago, the most common questions she received from friends, “I can’t believe you retired. Do you have any regrets? What are you going to do?”

Although she loved the challenges of her 20-year Army career, she wanted to pursue a new adventure and a new life. Park said,

“I’m a believer in creating my own destiny and re-inventing oneself.” Executing on of the most valuable lessons she learned as an Army signal officer, Park continued, “Know the cut off for good ideas, and identify your end state. I felt a “twang” leaving our Army in the middle of a war but as the Chief of Staff of the Army reminded us often, this is the NEW normal, so get on with it.” Given this new normal, Park said there really is no optimal time to retire.

The Seed

Park’s thoughts of joining the Army began as a teenager. She remembered watching the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite reporting on the first group of women to enter West Point in July 1976. She told her dad this is something she would like to do.

This notion never left her, so at the age of 20 after a couple of years of college as a pre-med student and an enlistment in the Army, Hae-Sue entered West Point as a freshman, commonly known as a plebe. Here, she developed a reputation for her staunch determination.

Getting Over the Wall

Recalling a pivotal cadet moment, she described one of the requirements during summer military training is the completion of an outdoor obstacle course and its almost 7 foot wall. The technique commonly employed to negotiate this barrier is to run at full speed, jump up on the wall, grab the top and pull oneself up and over with arm and upper body muscle. But at 5’1” Park knew that method would fail. She said,

“I had to figure out how to overcome this obstacle on my own and leverage my flexibility. I jumped as high as I ever had, barely able to grab the top, swung one leg over the top and then pulled myself up and over. Everyone cheered, because of my effort and ingenuity, certainly not because any grace or finesse. I learned two life-long lessons in overcoming hurdles. You have to leverage your strengths and do things your own way. Don’t try to compete with your weaknesses. Secondly, effort counts!”

As a signal officer, Park served in a spectrum of leadership positions throughout the US, Germany and Korea, culminating with an assignment as the commander of 53rd Signal Battalion (SATCON), the only Army entity that physically manages satellites, controls access, and is accountable for status and maintenance of these space born vehicles.

With more than 300 soldiers and civilians dispersed around the globe, the unit is responsible for the daily command and control of the Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS). Through the DSCS constellation, the 53rd provides continuous worldwide communications support to US war fighting forces, strategic military users, the US intelligence community and the National Command Authority.

Under Park’s leadership, the unit initiated the transition to the Wideband Global System (WGS) satellite constellations, a technology force multiplier used for communication among allies.

Park remarked that throughout her battalion command experience, the most meaningful moments were working with dedicated people on missions of national interest. “Whether it was Hurricane Katrina or the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 53rd had a very direct impact by providing our national assets the means to communicate securely. You see your Army efforts impacting others.” She said.

On a personal level, Park found the daily interaction with soldiers and their development profoundly fulfilling. Hae-Sue remarked, “You are able to create opportunities and challenge people to do more than they thought themselves capable. It is an honor to maintain those relationships to this day.”

Prior to retiring, Park served as special assistant to the Chief of Staff of the Army, Generals Pete Schoomaker and George Casey. During this assignment, she observed the Army’s top leaders wrestle with the challenge of transforming the Army from a post cold-war mission to one capable of fighting insurgencies on multiple fronts.

She often heard General Schoomaker speak of the “new normal” and she realized that this notion applied not only to military strategy and organization but also at a personal level. Hae-Sue decided to take on the challenge of re-invention herself, follow a passion and launch a second career.

The Passion

Her re-invention began in mountains pursuing a love of snow skiing. Although she learned to ski in the 5th grade and competed on the ski team at West Point, she really never had the opportunity to ski often let alone for an entire season. So she spent her initial transition between the Army and a new career carving turns across the country with stops in Vermont, Park City, Utah, Vail/Beaver Creek, Keystone, Telluride, Steamboat and Aspen, Colorado. This transitional time allowed introspection, and opportunities to seek wisdom from a lifetime of mentors.

“Skiing for an entire season was fantastic. But it really was enough. My body needed a break,” she laughed. As a former professor of economics at West Point, Hes had always been a bit curious about operations in financial institutions. Although she had little practical experience, she needed to sate that curiosity. Employing the mantra of “you never know until you try,” Park applied for several positions with a variety of firms. She accepted a position with a hedge fund as an “in-house management consultant” focused on information technology use and deployment.

Initially she found the industry fascinating. She described,

“While working for a hedge fund was intellectually novel, and growing money is the great capitalist prerogative, I was not generating any emotional profit for myself. Spending the previous twenty years in the Army believing in something bigger than self — Service to the Nation, my job was feeling more like an existence than a profession. I needed to be passionate about my day-to-day activities and measure myself to that.”

The Purpose

Applying the well-learned lessons from her West Point cadet days – “know your end state”, Hae-Sue transitioned into the defense industry. Attracted to SNVC, a defense information technology services company, because of its corporate values, Hae-Sue is now the Chief Operating Officer. She said, “We are focused providing high quality service to the federal government, while respecting and taking care of the employees. Both are integral to increasing company value and profitability. I think it’s possible to live the capitalistic American dream yet work for a cause beyond self.”

Hae-Sue has no regrets about retiring from the Army, but she does have a few thoughts to share:

  • It’s exciting to get out of ones comfort zone and try new things.
  • It helps to look at problems from new angles (like a hedge fund). It often reinforces the importance of sticking to the basics.
  • There is no one way to be successful. Define your own criteria for success and don’t allow convention to stifle what you are capable of doing. Simply, just go for it.
  • Live your passion! It might just make you happy.

If you would like to share your story or that of another veteran women, please contact me. Part 6 of the Honored Role series will feature an active duty major in Army Space Operations.

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