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Oh the Places She’ll Go: 1st Lt Abby Fenn

  • Published
  • 8th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

When a person is raised by military parents, they often learn to carry their sense of family and community wherever they go. Even if they call a certain state or town home, they incorporate bits and pieces of new customs and ideas as they grow up, becoming true citizens of the world.

First Lt. Abby Fenn, 8th Civil Engineer Squadron chief of asset accountability, is one such person.

“I’m half Korean, my dad is Korean,” Abby explained. “But I feel like I was raised traditionally American.”

Being raised “traditionally American,” Abby elaborated, included spending most of her youth in Manassas, Virginia. Yet, while she humbly describes herself as the product of a typical American upbringing, closer inspection shows the story of her family is more interesting than she may realize.

“I was actually born in Japan,” Abby said. “My mom, [Lori], is from Pennsylvania, born and raised. My dad, [Michael], was born in Seoul, near Seoul Station.”

Michael, 12, moved away from the Republic of Korea with his mother and U.S. Army step-father. After spending some years in Hawaii, then Virginia, he eventually landed at the West Point United States Military Academy and was commissioned in 1981.

By 1983, Michael was stationed at Camp Eschborn, Germany, where he met Lori, who served as a Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS) operator at Rhein-Main Air Base.

“My mom got out of the Air Force, they were stationed at Camp Zama, and I was born on Yakota Air Base, Japan,” Abby said. “I don’t remember much from when I was a kid there, but we definitely brought pieces of Japanese culture into the household.”

After leaving Japan, the Fenn family settled in Virginia. It wasn’t until her father received an unexpected opportunity to return to Germany, that Abby began to realize the world had much more to offer.

“They wanted to take me and my younger sister to Germany to see where they met, and [share] some of the experiences they had,” she explained. “Growing up, I pretty much identified with Virginia. Once I started moving around, like to Germany or college, [my perspective] changed a little bit.”

As a young cadet at the University of Pittsburgh’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), Abby’s fire for travel and interest in the Korean side of her heritage continued to grow.

“I started becoming more curious…I think the Air Force gave me a wider perspective, and made me realize I could make [seeing the world] a reality,” she said. “Now, I’ve been overseas in Asia for my whole Air Force career.”

Abby went straight from commissioning to Kadena Air Base, Japan.

“Unfortunately I didn’t get to visit Yakota, but I did get to go to Camp Zama to see where I grew up,” Abby said. “I feel very fortunate to have learned more about where I come from: Where I was born, where I spent a few years growing up, and my actual roots.” 

From Kadena, she volunteered to serve in Korea, hoping to see her father’s home country firsthand. Since arriving at Kunsan, Abby’s been able to visit extended family, which helped her learn more about her father. 

“My dad has a Korean name, but I didn’t even know it until I got here,” she explained. “All my relatives were calling him by his Korean name and I had to get used to it.”

Abby had no issues, though, adjusting to the sights and experiences of exploring her father’s homeland. A pursuit she shares with another member of Kunsan’s Asian American Pacific Islander community.

“I feel like we’re kindred spirits… She’s a great companion, and always good to go on an adventure,” said Ricah Quinto, Community Cohesion Coordinator for Kunsan AB. “I also think it’s really special when you can connect to your heritage, whether it’s through culture, language, food, or customs. I had a similar experience when I lived in the Philippines.”

Abby’s visit to the Demilitarized Zone stands out to her as the most important place she’s visited.

“There’s a viewpoint, and you can see people on the other side,” she explained. “The fact that I’m here, and I could see people right [across the 38th parallel]... it hit home.

“Growing up, I didn’t have too much knowledge on [the dynamic between North and South Korea],” she continued. “But, going through the museum, I got emotional because my grandma was a young adult during the Korean War … She doesn’t really talk about it, she doesn’t like to talk about it, but she lived through that.”

As her family’s history and her military community’s mission coalesced, Abby elaborated that her time at the Wolf Pack has been so much more than just another duty station.

“Serving in the military has allowed me to learn more about my cultural heritage,” she said. “I feel like a lot of the younger generations of Koreans don’t really care about reunification, but from the military side of it, for me, I feel like it’s our duty to be here and make sure this side is safe.”

In the R.O.K., Abby has adapted and even blends in with the world outside the gates of Kunsan Air Base.

“Being here, sometimes people would think I’m full Korean,” she said. “I just kind of blend in a little bit more, which is new to me. I’m used to not being the typical person in the room, especially being a military civil engineer, typically it’s [composed of] white men. I think I have just gotten used to being the odd-one-out, but it’s never really had an adverse effect on me.”

Abby admits, whether she stands out in a room full of peers, or acts as a cultural chameleon as she sees the world, her family’s military service, and community, paved the path she now travels.

“Military service played a larger role in my life growing up than my cultural heritage,” Abby explained. “Both my mom and dad have family members who served in the military before them so, in a way, military service is part of my familial heritage.

“Getting to experience things I haven’t experienced before, and learning more about my culture…” she continued. “This assignment definitely has a special place in my heart.”