[OUTLOOK]Restore Lt. Col. Pi to the armyOne day in August, 2002, Lt. Colonel Pi Woo-jin felt something inside one of her breasts. Two months later, she received surgery for breast cancer at a civilian hospital and had both breasts removed. She had one breast removed not by her choice but because it had tumors and she also decided to have the other removed because she had always felt uncomfortable having breasts in the military anyway.
After being hospitalized for 17 days, she returned to the force and struggled hard to fight cancer while receiving radiotherapy and other treatment. She wore a wig because she shed most of her hair but she did her job well of supervising and educating pilots and mechanics, as the commander of the students corps of the Army Aviation School.
As she belonged to the aviation branch of the military, she had to fly for more than two hours each quarter and she met that requirement without any problem. She also passed her annual physical test with excellence.
Just like her codename, Phoenix, she survived near death.
However, something else tried to make her surrender this time. Under regulations enforced by the military, disabilities are categorized into different degrees. According to that, having both breasts removed is second degree, along with cancer, while having one breast removed is eighth degee. If one has a disability from the first to the seventh degree, he or she is automatically fired.
Lt. Colonel Pi was discharged from the military on Nov. 30 because she had breast cancer and had both breasts removed. She filed an appeal immediately.
An evaluation committee for military personnel met on Wednesday at the Defense Ministry. The committee rejected her appeal to ask for annulment of her discharge, saying the decision was legitimate under military rules.
Of course, it is legitimate under the rules but it was an inappropriate decision because the part about disabilities is problematic to begin with. Soldiers are human after all. They get diseases, including cancer. But they can survive them also. A soldier should not be discharged only because he or she has cancer. If the person survived with superhuman effort, he or she deserves to stay in the army.
Lt. Colonel Pi left on a journey on Oct. 30. Starting from Haenam, South Jeolla province, located at the tip of the peninsula, she walked until she arrived at the Unification Observatory in Gangwon Province, near the DMZ. This 800-kilometer walk took her 23 days. She got up at 6:30 every morning and kept walking until it became dark. She wanted to demonstrate that she was as strong as any other soldier.
The military says it is a problem that she had a scar because she belonged to the aviation branch. Generally, soldiers who fly are required to have no scars because scars can split when jet fighters fly steeply up or down at fast speed, causing air pressure to change abruptly.
But Lt. Colonel Pi piloted a chopper, not a jet fighter. In fact, she worked mostly on the ground although she met the mandatory hours of flying.
The logic that she could not serve as a soldier just because she had cancer and bore scars from surgery is not persuasive enough to the people for whom the military serves.
Lt. Colonel Pi was appointed a second lieutenant in 1979 after graduating from university. Until she was discharged in November, she lived as a soldier for 27 years. She never married. The military meant everything to her. She was forced to leave the army and now her only wish is to return to it.
The army should not stop her when she wishes to continue to live as a soldier.
I do not mean that we should be more generous to her than to other soldiers because she was the first woman chopper pilot. I just mean that the unrealistic regulations of the military should be fixed so that it does not discharge decent soldiers, but restores real soldiers.
Changing the part about disabilities will not make the military full of patients. Instead, the military will become stronger and more powerful thanks to people like Lt. Colonel Pi. When some try everything to leave the military or avoid mandatory military service, the military should not expel a real soldier with determination, who wants to stay in the army until she dies.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Chung Jin-hong