Growing up, Allen Janssen had a very different expectation of what his future would hold than the average kid. Boys who grew up in orphanages in the Republic of Korea in the 1960s and 70s – if they were not adopted as babies – would most likely stay there until they turned 18. Then, they were shipped to Seoul to start on-the-job training and they were on their own.
A twist of fate ensured that would not be Janssen’s path. At the age of 10, he was adopted by an American family from Nebraska.
Ray and Irene Janssen showed the young boy from South Korea what it was to be part of an American family, but adjusting to his new life was far from easy. Janssen’s determination and hard work helped him learn English, make friends and get involved with sports.
Janssen held onto those values and decided he wanted to become a Nebraska state patrolman, but in order to join, recruits had to have served at least two years in the military. He joined the Army as an infantryman, Jan. 16, 1981, and 32 years later, retired as a sergeant major.
Janssen was born in South Korea in 1961. He lived with his biological mother on and off for about five years, but said he spent most of his time at the orphanage.
“Some days, I would spend with her, and then I would go back (to the orphanage),” Janssen said. “After I was about 5, I never saw her again.”
At the time, South Korea was a Third World country. Life for children in an orphanage there was challenging, he said.
“I remember everything,” Janssen said. “You never went to bed with a full stomach – you just didn’t. There wasn’t enough food.”
Children were split into groups of 20 and would live in a building together at the campus. Each group had a chaperone.
“It seems like we always had a bad one,” Janssen said. “They would physically abuse us. There was always mass punishment. I remember one time we got spanked bad – (the chaperone) had us line up against the wall. She came by and hit our calves – that’s where it hurt the most – with a board that had nails in it. I remember everybody bleeding.”
Janssen said he remembers life being like “survival of the fittest.” The children would fight for food and steal it while others were trying to eat.
“It was a challenge, but it is what it is,” Janssen said. “Back then, I didn’t know better.”
The orphanage had a sponsorship program in which people could donate money to the facility. Ray and Irene Janssen originally were Allen Janssen’s sponsors.
“Eventually, they give the sponsor the option of adopting the kid,” he said. “My parents wanted to adopt, which is amazing. They had five of their own children who were all out of the house by the time they adopted me. They wanted to give a kid a chance.”
Janssen still looks at the couple’s decision as “mindboggling.”
“Normally, a kid my age doesn’t get adopted. People wanted babies,” he explained. “When I flew over to the U.S., the (second) oldest child was 3 months old.
“I was very fortunate that my parents adopted me,” Janssen continued. “I saw it every day. A kid turns 18, they take them to Seoul, and they’re placed in different areas (for on-the-job training), but they were adults and they were on their own.”
Janssen was in a new country with new people and very different surroundings.
He remembers on his first day home, his mom made him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
“I had never had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” Janssen said. “It was out of this world.”
Because he was so used to eating fast, he quickly consumed the sandwich. Allen Janssen didn’t know English, and Irene Janssen didn’t know Korean, so she confused this behavior
with starvation. Irene Janssen made the boy a second sandwich.
“I downed that one and she made me another sandwich,” Janssen said. “She made me six (sandwiches) total.”
Shortly after, Ray Janssen took him outside to see the farm.
“It was a hot day, and man, I got sick!” Janssen said, with a laugh. “I couldn’t smell peanut butter for the next 17 years; I was 27 the next time I tried it.
“I had never had anything like it, and I could have all I could eat,” he added. “I never knew I could have that.”
Janssen began going to the nearby country school. He started in kindergarten and took two grades each year until he caught up with his classmates.
“I had some great, amazing teachers,” Janssen said. “One in particular became my ‘third mother.’ She spent hours and hours with me working to teach me English. She’d take me home over the weekend and teach me English. I loved it. She was a great lady.”
Even with all the assistance, learning a new language was frustrating for him.
“I couldn’t speak to my peers,” he said. “I remember one day I was so mad that I couldn’t speak English.
“I still remember this day like it was yesterday,” Janssen added. “I went home and I was crying. I made a promise to myself – I would never speak Korean until I could speak English. Believe it or not, within 30 days or so, I forgot Korean.”
After about a year, Janssen began understanding and communicating with his peers. When he was growing up, Janssen’s parents would take him to reunions for children who were adopted from Korea. When they would try speaking Korean to him, he wouldn’t understand.
Taking an oath
When it came time for Janssen to make a decision about what he wanted to do after high school, he decided he wanted to join the Nebraska State Patrol.
“(At the time, Nebraska required) a minimum of two years of military service, so I decided to join (the Army) for three years so I could do my commitment, get out and join the State Patrol Academy,” Janssen said. “Once I got in, I really liked it. I was in Germany, and I didn’t want to leave, so I stuck with it.”
Over the next 32 years, Janssen served overseas in Germany and during Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm, Able Sentry, Joint Guardian, Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn. For the last nine years of his Army career, Janssen was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) at Fort Drum, N.Y. He served as operations senior enlisted adviser for 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, from 2004 to 2007.
Janssen said one of the best parts of his career was deploying with Soldiers.
“I’ve done multiple deployments, but as an infantry guy, that’s what you come in to do – go to combat,” he said. “I was so proud to go to combat with these guys because we had some awesome Soldiers. When I was with the 2-87th (Infantry) Catamounts, we had an awesome battalion. It was an honor and pleasure to deploy with them, but we didn’t bring everybody back.”
After redeploying from Afghanistan, Janssen served as the division’s operations senior enlisted adviser until he retired in 2013.
“The highlight of my career was when my son, Danny, without any coercion, joined the Army. It was awesome.”
Capt. Daniel Janssen currently serves as the aide to Maj. Gen. Harry E. Miller, former senior commander of the 10th Mountain Division and current commander of the 42nd Infantry Division, New York Army National Guard. Daniel said that while he was growing up, his father never shared much about his military career, which created an “Army mystique.”
“I had always admired my father’s service and dedication to the Army,” Daniel said. “My father shielded my mother and me from the typical Army lifestyle of having to pick up and move every other year.
“He provided a high level of stability, which allowed me to grow up in one town while my father had numerous permanent changes of station and spent a large portion of his career as a geographical bachelor,” he added.
The mystery of military service and the attacks on 9/11 ultimately led Daniel to make the decision to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“My father never pressured me to join the military,” he said. “He knows that you can’t be a good Soldier and effective leader if you are being forced into service.”
The day after he commissioned his son, Allen was on a plane to Iraq to deploy with the 10th Mountain Division headquarters.
“I was very lucky and grateful to have my father attend and render the traditional first salute, a great Army tradition,” Daniel said. “Every now and then, I run into folks who see the name on my uniform and ask if I’m related to Al Janssen. I have met some of his former Soldier, peers and superiors.
“The stories and accounts that inevitably ensue are usually colorful and have a common denominator – they’re the fond memories of a top-shelf noncommissioned officer who loved what he did 24/7, and was one of the best at it without ever taking himself too seriously. That’s a pretty cool legacy to have,” he added.
Before retiring last year, Allen was offered a position in Washington, D.C., but decided to hang up his uniform and stay in the North Country.
“The people keep you around,” he noted. “I think there are some great Americans in this division and in the community. The local community embraces us. They have really come around and put their arms around Fort Drum. I really love the surrounding community.”
Like many service members preparing to leave the military, Janssen was not sure what he would do after retirement. He didn’t have to work, but Janssen said he could not imagine
spending the rest of his life away from the Soldiers he loved.
Janssen learned that the facility manager position at Magrath Sports Complex was open while he was going through the Army Career and Alumni Program. After learning about the application process, he submitted his resume and was hired.
“I was at the right place at the right time,” he said. “The job appealed to me because of the Soldiers. I would be around Soldiers day in and day out, and I’ve always loved sports. What a great combination! It was right up my alley.”
Janssen said he spent much of his career – especially at the G-3 – planning events. He has been able to use that knowledge to assist in the planning of several athletic events, including the popular Mountain Mudder challenge.
“I do it for the Soldiers,” he said. “They deserve that.”
Daniel said he’s happy that his father can continue doing what he loves.
“He loves the Army and the American Soldier,” he said. “Now that he’s out of uniform, I’m glad he gets to continue to do what he does best: serve the Soldiers and family members of the great Army community.”
Janssen recently attended the Inclusive Recreation for Wounded Warriors workshop at Pennsylvania State University. The weeklong course taught recreation managers the tools to better integrate wounded warriors into their existing programs.
“The big thing is adapting the programs for wounded warriors,” Janssen said. “We can change the conditions (of activities) to allow them to participate. Not to degrade them – you still want them to be challenged. We won’t make it so easy that they get embarrassed or have no enjoyment. Nine times out of 10, they are looking for a challenge. That’s why they came in the Army.”
Janssen said the key is focusing on ensuring wounded warriors are not set up to fail, while also giving them the opportunity to succeed.
“It was a great course,” he said. “I learned a lot about how to make our facilities more accessible – not only for wounded warriors, but for people with other disabilities, so they get equal benefits out of our facility.”
Janssen said he is thriving in his new role in the community, surrounding himself with Soldiers, family members and civilians who work at Fort Drum.
“I really enjoy it up here,” he said. “This is a great community, and I’m really happy to be a part of it. Being a Soldier for 32 years, that’s the biggest thing you’d miss – being around Soldiers and taking care of Soldiers. You miss that sense of the military community. I think I made the right choice.”