Monday, August 22, 2011
Hundreds honor 1st Sgt. Shua P. Yang, retiring after 23 years of Army service
1st Sgt. Shua P. Yang choked back more than just a few tears when it was his turn to take the podium at the Elks Club in Sheboygan.
After viewing a special video of his accomplishments covering a 23-year Army career, and listening to the well-wishes and words of thanks from the 200 people who came Saturday night to celebrate his service to his country, Yang thanked those who were special in his own life — his extended family, his friends, and especially his wife of 18 years, Kaokalia, and his four children: Jak, Maggie PajYing, Joshua ChueYee and Thomas MouaCheng.
"I might be a soldier, but I'm a father first," said Yang, who will retire at the end of October as the highest-ranking noncommissioned Hmong soldier in Army history. He was promoted in 2007 to first sergeant, and last December returned stateside from the last of his five overseas deployments to Iraq, where he served as head of intelligence for a 4,600-soldier division.
Yang saved the most praise for Kaokalia, who took the lead in helping to raise the family while he was away on duty.
"She is the strength of the family," Yang said.
And in turn, Yang's eldest son, Jak, presented a surprise gift to his father, a plaque he made himself while away at school in Boston. It read: "A soldier and a loving father protecting the ones he loves."
"Here you go, Dad," said Jak, 20, who flew in for the special dinner ceremony.
Yang, 44, was born in Laos, moved to the United States at the age of 9, and grew up in Sheboygan after his family settled here. He attended St. Paul Lutheran School and graduated from South High School in 1986 and was a key member of the Redwings' soccer team.
After two years in college at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, in 1988, Yang decided to enlist in the Army, following the military footsteps of his father, Churchill Yang, who served in the Laotian Army and was a colonel in the Secret War, during which Hmong soldiers fought alongside U.S. troops against the communist North Vietnamese army in the Vietnam War's Laotian front.
"My dad is a big example of why I went into the service," Yang said in an interview just before the dinner.
His Army career took him to all parts of the United States and all corners of the world, to Germany, Italy, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Bosnia, and Iraq, where he served in Desert Storm in 1990 and then two tours in Iraq in 2006 and 2009-10. He went through Airborne training and intelligence training, all duly recorded in a slideshow honoring his career that was aired Saturday night.
"I had a good time and it meant a lot to me," Yang said of his career. "The Army helped me a lot, it helped me mature. I met a lot of people and the biggest thing was the travel and to see all kind of people and to learn from that."
Being away from the family for extended periods, though, has been difficult for Yang, who wants to settle in Sheboygan with his family following retirement. He currently is stationed with 1st Stryker Combat Brigade, 1st Armored Division, at Fort Bliss, Texas.
"The biggest reason I want to retire is because my family is away from me," Yang said, adding that he may look into running for local political office after he returns to Sheboygan.
Kaokalia Yang, who produced the video and photo displays of her husband's career for the audience, said she's very proud of his service to his country, and to his family.
"To us he's our hero," she said. "We're proud of him. All these (people attending) are family and friends. Out of state, in state, a lot of support. So we have this party to celebrate."
Chasong Yang, Shua's older brother and the executive director of the Hmong Mutual Assistance Association in Sheboygan, said his brother enlisted in the service "against his mother's wishes."
"After 23 years, he's made his mom and dad proud and he's made all of us proud," Chasong Yang said. "Today is not a retirement, it's more of a welcoming home."