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Captain retires after 29 years in Navy; looks to Mount Vernon roots as source of his success

Capt. Thomas L. Dearborn, born in Korea of a Korean mother and U.S. Army serviceman father, was adopted and raised by Richard and Marjory Dearborn in Mount Vernon, Maine.

Mount Vernon native Capt. Thomas L. Dearborn retired from the U.S. Navy on October 1 after 29 years of honorable service. His many years of success in the Navy come from his unique story of humble beginnings and the household that shaped him into the caring, dedicated leader he would later become.

Dearborn was born in Daegu, South Korea on August 2, 1965. His mother, Mae Ja Choi, was the only girl among four brothers and came from a traditional Korean family in the Dejan area. His father, Ralph Thomas Lamb, was a U.S. Army service member who was stationed in Korea at that time. Lamb left when his son was very young, leaving his mother to raise him alone in Daegu. In an act of good will, he married Mae Ja before he left, ensuring his son’s status as a U.S. citizen born abroad by establishing his paternity.

Dearborn doesn’t have many details of his biological father, but like many children fathered by American service members, he was left in a country that required him to have a visa stamped each year or risk being deported. He would never again have contact with his birth father.

“As an adult, I thought about finding my biological father,” explained Dearborn. “But I decided nothing good would come of it, since he likely had another life and a family unaware of his past.”

When his mother’s health was failing, she decided that it would be in the best interest of her son to put him up for adoption in the United States, where he would have the best chance of starting a good life.

“Growing up as a half-American in Korea was extremely tough. I was clearly unwelcome there,” said Dearborn. “When I came to this country, I had nothing but my American heritage to hold on to.”

At the age of 10, Tom Dearborn was adopted into the Dearborn family. Richard and Marjory Dearborn had six children of their own, and he made number seven. He has an older brother (Jeff), an older sister (Ruth Ann), three younger sisters (Linda, Nora Sue, and Laurel), and one younger brother (John).

He arrived in the United States in September of 1975, where he met the Dearborn family – all eight of them – at Boston’s Logan Airport in Massachusetts.

“The Dearborn family welcomed me into their lives with open arms filled with love and kindness,” said Dearborn. “The welcome reception by the citizens of Mount Vernon made such a positive impact on my life. I realized over time that I was living the American dream that so many can only imagine.”

The Dearborns were residents of Mount Vernon, Maine, where they kept a family farm and raised all seven of their children. Richard Dearborn, now retired, was a State of Maine Forestry Department employee and Marjory Dearborn was a stay-at-home mother who also worked as a substitute teacher and drove school buses.

The Dearborns were not wealthy, but they knew how to stretch what resources they had to raise a family of nine. They did not get everything they wanted, but Richard and Marjory Dearborn always made sure their family had what they needed.

“They were genuinely good people, very loving and kind to others, and would give the shirts off their backs to help someone in need,” said Dearborn. “I learned some very valuable lessons from them – a good work ethic (hard work pays off), honesty, kindness, responsibility, and respect for others.”

Dearborn was placed into Mrs. Laura Duley’s fifth grade class at Mount Vernon Elementary School. When he started school, he spoke no English, and it took years to catch up. He had a special teacher to help him with language and speech through eighth grade.

“The people of Mount Vernon and the school faculty were truly exceptional folks and all of them great Americans,” Dearborn said. “You hear stories all the time about immigrants and their hardships integrating into the community. As probably the only half-Korean kid in the entire state, I was very lucky to have landed in Mount Vernon, because my experience growing up is filled with fond memories and great folks who have had a positive impact on my life and forged me into the man I am today.”

He proceeded to graduate from Maranacook Community High School in 1983 and the University of Maine in 1988, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Production and Processing Technology, and also a commission in the U.S. Navy through the Navy Reserve Officers Training Corps program.

Dearborn knew at a young age how great the United States is and wanted to serve his country as a way to give back for the opportunities that were given to him.

As a career Surface Warfare Officer, Dearborn spent his 29 years of service shaping the lives of thousands of junior officers and Sailors. He served on many ships and staffs, including as commanding officer for USS Tempest (PC-2), USS Underwood (FFG-36), and USS Somerset (LPD-25).

Under his tenure, Dearborn instilled a positive command climate of integrity, loyalty, ownership, and uncompromising standards. His dynamic management and strategic vision produced awards in Battle Effectiveness and Surface Ship Safety. Later in his career, he earned a Master of Arts from the Naval War College in National Security and Strategic Studies.

His final command was as Chief of Staff for Expeditionary Strike Group 3 in San Diego, California. In this final role, he managed all facets of operations for 14 Amphibious Assault Ships, three Amphibious Squadrons, and eight Naval Support Elements, comprising 13,500 Sailors, Marines, and civilian personnel.

Dearborn cites his time with USS Tempest as his most memorable tour of duty. During this first tour as a commanding officer, he gained his first experience working with the Navy Special Operations Command, giving him insights into events that few ever have opportunity to see first-hand.

“That tour helped me realize that I had what it takes to command and lead men and women into combat,” said Dearborn. “The experiences, knowledge, and maturity gained at an early point in my career was a key to my success, for which I owe the thousands of men and women I served with over the years. Without their unfailing support and dedication, I could not have done it.”

Through all his achievements, Dearborn has never forgotten where he came from. He knows his life could have taken a very different path, and feels extremely blessed for the Dearborns and everything they gave and taught him.

“The Dearborn family gave me a second lease on life,” said Dearborn. “Without them, I would never have come to this country. I would not have had life experiences or a successful naval career serving my country. Without them, I would be nothing. I owe them everything.”

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