First Lieutenant Brian Yang. Credit: Submitted image

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First Lieutenant Brian Yang didn’t want to be mediocre. 

The fourth of five children born to Hmong refugees in east St. Paul, Yang pursued his interests with passion and rigor. 

Playing video games as a little kid, he had to beat every boss and complete every mission. When his older brother, SuChann, encouraged him to take up tennis early in high school, Yang learned fast and was able to beat SuChann within two months. Eventually he became captain of the Harding High tennis team. When he got started weightlifting in late high school and early college, he became a nationally ranked powerlifter. When he needed to take up running to pass the Army Combat Fitness Test, he became an ultramarathoner. 

“He was somebody that was pretty much all in,” said SuChann Yang, Brian’s older brother. 

Yang went missing on July 18 while running in the wilderness near Mount Saint Helens in Washington state, near where he was stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Hikers discovered his body lying about 200 feet down a steep embankment on July 21 after an apparent accidental fall, according to the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office. He was 25. 

“Even though he was very young, I believe he lived a very full life,” his older sister Wennicha Yang, 26, said. 

Yang was a platoon leader assigned to the Army’s 513th Transportation Company, 13th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 593rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command, according to a news release from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

“First Lt. Yang touched the lives of so many within our organization and will be sorely missed,” Lieutenant Colonel Alan Fowler said. 

Yang had recently been promoted. The day after he went missing, he was set to begin a new role training 600 soldiers. 

His family describes Yang as a born leader, someone who was both naturally gifted and a relentless worker. He is remembered as a charismatic young man who put all of himself into his personal relationships, his hobbies, and his profession. 

“Brian has always wanted to be a leader and always wanted to learn how to help people,” Wennicha Yang said. 

 ‘A curious child’

SuChann and Wennicha described their younger brother in separate interviews as a “curious child.” Brian was brave and outgoing from a young age. He loved to explore, and wasn’t scared of pushing the limits. 

Yang was the youngest son in the family, but had the most confidence. Wennicha, a year older than Brian, remembers transferring to his elementary school when she was in fifth grade. She didn’t know many people and was nervous, but Brian proved to be a great guide. 

“You can follow me, I can show you who my friends are,” she recalls her brother saying. 

Quickly she realized he was friends with most of the school. 

Yang’s talents were evident and varied. He was smart and athletic. At Harding High in east St. Paul, he could be seen between classes reading his textbooks or looking over flash cards. After school, he’d organize intense workouts for the tennis team. 

Growing up in a working-class household and raised by immigrant parents, the Ivy League wasn’t on the radar for the Yang family. But after Wennicha earned an academic scholarship, she realized her whip-smart brother would have a good shot. Yang worked hard, and with the help of a Harding High guidance counselor, applied to a number of prestigious schools. He attended Brown University in Rhode Island and earned a scholarship to help cover expenses. 

Adventurous life

Brown University was a culture shock for Yang, Wennicha said. Many students came from very wealthy backgrounds, but Yang found a niche for himself and connected with other first generation immigrant students.

“Brian had to learn how to navigate the spaces he was in by himself,” Wennicha said.  

He took full advantage of Brown’s international programming to study across the globe, successfully navigating many spaces alone and making friends along the way. Yang spent time in Argentina, Costa Rica, Madagascar, South Africa, Vietnam, and Tanzania as a student. 

During his senior year, he spent a semester abroad in Laos, staying with extended family while working on his college thesis, a study on the impact of undetonated explosives left over from the Vietnam War on the socioeconomic conditions of people in the Xieng Khouang province. 

Yang graduated from Brown in 2018 with a degree in medical anthropology and international public health. He dreamed of helping refugees impacted by war and climate change. 

After receiving his degree, Yang was accepted into a graduate leadership program at Brown, but deferred. He opted instead to join the U.S. Army and attend Officer Candidate School, driven to become a leader and test himself. 

‘A very caring guy’

When Yang was young, he was impulsive, his brother SuChann said, but as he became an adult he began to think through his life in a meticulous way. Connecting with family and friends was an important part of Yang’s life, something he did on a regular basis to check-in, listen, and offer encouragement. 

“Brian was a very caring guy, he would always be the first one to reach out to people,” SuChann said. “I think that’s what made people connect to Brian.” 

Wennicha’s phone used to ring late at night, with her younger brother calling to check on her and catch up. They could talk for hours, she said, and Yang was always one to listen and ask questions about others before offering stories from his own compelling life. 

As Brian Yang prepared to take on his new role training soldiers in the Army, he was training himself for his next grueling distance race. Taking on professional and personal goals was the norm for Yang, who always put the maximum effort forward.

“He always chased after what it means for him to be alive,” Wennicha said. 

A military memorial for Yang was held in Washington state on July 28. 

Andrew Hazzard covers climate issues for Sahan Journal. He has worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Mississippi and Minnesota. He is member of Society of Environmental Journalists. His work at Sahan...