YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — Chris Vaia should be taken very literally when he talks about building bridges between people of different ages, races and cultures.
The retired Army sergeant major, now an environmental engineer technician with the Army Corps of Engineers Far East District, has spent the past 13 years making something constructive from the pain of losing a child.
The physical symbol of that effort has been Jeni’s Bridge, or the Friendship Bridge, a small, gray span with white pillars tucked away near Zama American High School.
The bridge is a reminder of his 13-year-old daughter Jeni, who 13 years ago died after falling into a asthma-induced coma.
Now, Vaia is looking to build a second bridge at Yongsan Garrison.
The bridges are meant to serve as a reminder that, “unless one person says ‘forgive me’ and another person says ‘I do forgive you,’ there will never be what we all strive for — peace,” Vaia said.
They are an affirmation of Jeni’s belief, her father says, that “if your heart was right and your motives were pure, as long as you kept talking, you could solve anything.”
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Vaia, 57, spent 30 years in the Army, mostly as a command retention NCO at places like Camp Zama and the 8th Personnel Command at Yongsan Garrison.
In the year since Jeni’s death, he has become involved in a number of youth-oriented efforts.
He helps counsel troubled middle school students; he serves as a caseworker for the Yongsan Red Cross.
And to some, he is better known as the Balloon Ajossi, due to his penchant for twisting small balloons into animal and heart shapes for young kids.
His many overseas tours also have given him a particular interest in bridging gaps between children from different cultures.
In addition to the bridge he hopes to build near Yongsan Middle School, Vaia plans on constructing bridges at schools in Japan and South Korea to help heal the historic enmity between those two nations.
Eventually, he says, he would like to see Jeni’s Bridges built in South Korea, Vietnam, Mongolia and other places he has worked.
“The symbol of a bridge is what this old world really needs,” he said.
“The support of a bridge represents the continuing acts and works of keeping relationships healthy. The arch and walkway of a bridge represent the act of bringing together from broken relationships.”
His hopes are admittedly grandiose, Vaia says, but that doesn’t stop him from trying.
“I know people can change,” he says. “I have a complete lack of fear of anything. Absolutely nothing worse could happen than to have to bury your child.”
It is part of the lesson Vaia imparts to those he tries to help.
“There are a couple of things I know in life,” Vaia said.
“One, life isn’t fair. Terrible things happen to good people. Two, if someone is in trouble today, I can tell them tomorrow, while it might not be better, will be different. No matter how terrible you think it is, you have the ability to change as long as you are breathing.”