Veterans Day holds special meaning for Chal Kim, a Los Angeles Postal Police officer and former Marine who sees it as a time to remember two people who helped shape his life.
While growing up near Baltimore, Kim befriended a former leatherneck who was a regular customer at an eatery that Kim’s family owned.
“When I was in middle school, I would see him there eating and he would always encourage me to join the Marine Corps when I got older,” Kim recalled.
The Marine veteran also urged Kim to follow in his footsteps and join the Boy Scouts. The reason became clear after Kim took the man’s advice and rose to the rank of Eagle Scout.
“If you achieve the rank of Eagle Scout prior to your 18th birthday, you gain one rank — private first class — in the U.S. Marine Corps. I didn’t know that” until a Marine recruiter explained it to him, Kim said.
Kim, who had lost contact with the veteran, signed up for the Marines at age 17 and later met another Marine who became his best friend.
Cpl. Kemaphoom “Chuck” Chanawongse and Kim were among the first Marines who entered Iraq during the early, bloody days after Operation Iraqi Freedom began in 2003.
“He and I went to boot camp together … and we were stationed in the same battalion at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. We would always hang out together,” Kim said.
The two friends were both sent to Kuwait, the staging area for U.S. troops prior to the Iraq invasion.
“I was with the 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion,” Kim said. The battalion was led by a tank unit that traveled from southern Iraq to Bagdad, sporadically fighting Iraqi troops along the way.
“I felt I was ready for anything to happen. People don’t join the Marine Corps not to engage in combat. The Marine Corps is the best fighting force in America.”
Miles away, Chanawongse was heading to the city of Nasiriyah, when his unit was ambushed.
“Chuck’s assault vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and he died,” Kim said. “March 23, 2003, was his [killed in action] date.”
The date seared into Kim’s memory.
After nearly five years in the Marines, Kim was honorably discharged and returned to Maryland.
“I had seen mail carriers in the neighborhood and it seemed like something fun I could do,” Kim said.
Kim joined USPS as a city carrier assistant in 2013. A year later, he became a letter carrier and entered the 204B Acting Supervisor Training program.
“I was a supervisor in Santa Monica until I joined the Postal Police,” said Kim, whose peers have twice voted him Engagement Most Valuable Player, an award that recognizes employees who are involved, committed and enthusiastic.
Kim enjoys working with the Postal Police and expressed gratitude to the customer in his parents’ eatery who inspired his Marine service and for the friendship he had with Chanawongse.
“I regularly speak with [Chuck’s] mom and dad. He was my best friend,” Kim said.
It’s his way of living Semper Fidelis, the Marine’s motto — “always faithful.”
Said Kim: “The United States is the best country in the world. Serving our country has been engrained in my head since I was in middle school. I feel that it is part of my duty living here.”
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