Holly Mays made it to Las Vegas because she beat the odds.
Not once or twice but many times she kept rolling the dice of life. Even though she experienced setback after setback, she never gave up.
And finally, after being denied for her dream job with the prestigious Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team, the South Korean-born tech sergeant landed a job in 2009 as the team’s training manager.
She’s come a long way from being a toddler in diapers who was abandoned on a street corner. Now, at 39, with two years left in her Air Force career, she’s ready to give the baby she’s expected to deliver in February the love and the life she never had.
“I just always wanted to be part of something elite,” Mays said in an Aug. 22 interview at the Thunderbirds hangar at Nellis Air Force Base. Until recently, she’s never told her life story “because I was always ashamed of it.”
“When I was a baby, I was left alone in the streets by a female figure, which I’m thinking is my mom. I just remember even as a baby that they were never going to come back. That was my first memory,” she said.
“I just sat there. I was cold. I was crying. I was in diapers,” she said, her voice cracking as tears welled up in her eyes.
“I don’t know how many hours went by, but these two guys, which I’m thinking were cops, picked me up and took me to a police station to find out what I was doing there alone,” she said. “Nobody came to claim me so they decided to take me to an orphanage and that’s where my life began.”
From that orphanage she was transferred to another because the nuns who were her chaperones thought she was a troublemaker.
“I was just trying to survive but maybe I broke the rules a couple times,” she said. “I was a young kid. You don’t know how to discipline yourself. You don’t know right from wrong (and) they were very harsh on punishment if you didn’t follow the rules.”
U.S. Army soldiers would visit the orphans once a month and hand out blankets, food and shoes. At age 8, she thought she was getting too old to be adopted because “most people are adopted when they are babies,” she said.
Then one day a soldier and his wife noticed her. “I guess they took a liking to me and decided to take me home for a couple weekends at a time.”
Eventually, the couple began the adoption process.
“I was very happy when they wanted me,” Mays recalled. “They took me home. That experience was different because the house they had was very domesticated, like running water, toilets and a real bed to sleep in. I thought that was just amazing.
“They treated me with hugs and kisses that I never knew.”
But after they moved from South Korea to Maryland, her family life went downhill. “They always argued and yelled at each other.”
After two years and with an adopted younger sister, her father retired and the family moved to Florida. Holly was 12. Her parents separated soon after they arrived, and divorced a couple of years later. The girls stayed with their mother.
“My dad wanted me and my mom wanted my sister but because my mom wanted to be rebellious she actually fought for me and my sister,” Mays said.
“Nothing in my life has gone right so I just didn’t think their marriage could last. At first I was kind of shocked, devastated. But once I accepted it I moved on. I didn’t think twice about it.”
Just before she graduated from high school, Mays married a soldier who was bound for Fort Campbell, Ky. He was five years older.
“At first I said, ‘no,’ because at the time I was 17 and had aspirations. I wanted to go to college. I had my whole life set out and none of it had a guy in the picture.”
Then she thought this was her opportunity to leave her broken home.
After a yearlong, rocky relationship — “I didn’t know how to be a wife. We just kept arguing about small stuff,” — her husband filed for divorce. It was the lowest of low points in her life.
“I don’t have any friends. I don’t have any family. I just felt so alone,” she said. “Even though I had a home, I almost felt homeless. I have no college degree. I have no money. I have nobody to turn to.”
Then while watching television one day she saw an Air Force commercial. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. That could be the start of my life right there a good life.”
And it was. She went to a recruiter in Clarksville, Tenn., and signed enlistment papers on her birthday, Aug. 15, 1995. “That was my present to myself.”
She started with basic training in January 1996 and then trained to be a dental technician. After three years stationed in Alaska she cross-trained for a new speciality, unit training manager.
In 2001, she took a stab at making the Thunderbirds team. “When I joined the Air Force, I remember the Thunderbirds were the spotlight, the face of the Air Force and I’ve always wanted to be part of it,” she said.
But because she lacked experience she was turned down for the job.
She didn’t give up. With experience under her belt she applied for the job again in 2009 and landed it.
“It was one of the happiest moments. I felt like I got my dream job.”
After traveling with the team and seeing cities she’s read about — Niagara Falls, N.Y., Miami and Chicago — she met a man in Las Vegas who’s her fiance, Anthony Young.
“Now I’m thinking about family and babies and marriage,” she said. “Once I get out of the Air Force with my MBA degree I’m going to apply for a job at the MGM or a contractor job on base. And just live happily ever after.”
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308.