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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

Asian-Pacific-American Month
Fort Meade, Maryland
May 19, 2011

Good morning, and welcome everyone—it’s good to see all of you.

I was born in Hawai’i about a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor—and my children like reminding me that this means I was born in the first half of the last century. But it also means I grew up under martial law, in the midst of World War II’s Pacific theater of operations.

I’m also Sansei—a third generation American of Japanese ancestry, which only really means that I stand on the broad shoulders of two preceding generations who granted me opportunity, earned for me respect, and gifted me their confidence to be able to make my way successfully in this country, where they had invested all their hopes for a better future. That was our beginning. Now, let me fast forward about five decades.

In 1997, I took command of SFOR, the peace stabilization force, Bosnia-Herzegovina—you will recall the terrible war that occurred there in the Balkans, 1992-1995. It was not our war, but we were there to bring stability and security in the war’s aftermath. SFOR, the stabilization force, had the mission of implementing the Dayton Peace Accords by providing a safe and secure environment within which democracy could take root.

One of my initial duties as commander was to present myself to the national tri-presidency in Sarajevo. Tri-presidency—that word that tells you a lot. When I called on the tri-presidents—a Serb, a Muslim, a Croat—I explained my mission and what I intended to accomplish. They listened patiently, even politely. And when I was done, one of them told me that they were happy that the stabilization force had come to Bosnia. Because of us, they felt secure again and could go about their daily activities safely. They were glad to have us there; their lives were, indeed, better. But, then, he concluded, “SFOR will leave someday, and when you do, we will go back to the way things were before you came. We cannot help ourselves; it’s in our blood; it is our history—our 600-year history.”

I looked at them—Presidents Kraijsnik, Izetbegovic, Zubak—three European, Caucasian males. You couldn’t tell them apart! They looked like one another; they spoke the same language. Without their names, it would be difficult to know which one was Muslim, which one was Serb, or Croat.

I told them that I was probably the one person in all of Bosnia who wouldn’t accept their explanation for why things couldn’t change. “You see,” I told them, “I come from a country where no one looks alike. Most, not all, but most of us are immigrants. We are not threatened by our differences. In fact, we honor them by celebrating each other’s cultures—as we are doing today. We are Americans first, and then, we are whatever we choose our cultures to be next—African-American, Asian-American, Native American, Latino-American, Pacific-Islander American—or Red Sox Nation.

They would not believe me—not even my description of heritage celebrations like this one. Then, I explained that on Memorial Day, they would see Americans from all of those communities coming together to pay their collective respects to all the men and women who gave their lives for our way of life. I wish the tri-presidents could be here today to see this observance.

Growing up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I know what today’s celebration symbolizes about Asian-Pacific Islanders, whose cultures are rooted in more than 40 countries—from all across the Pacific Ocean to the Pacific Rim, where ocean gives way to land. From the two most populous nations on Earth—India and China—one, the largest democracy and second-largest Muslim nation in the world; the other, the largest communist state. To the over 600 islands of Micronesia, where just 110,000 people are scattered across an ocean expanse five times the size of France. And to Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation and fourth most populous country, which, if its archipelago of 17,000 islands were overlaid across the United States, would stretch from New York to California.

Today, some 18.5 million Americans claim Asian-Pacific heritage. Our personal histories are linked to one of the most diverse regions of the world—a unique blend of nationalities, cultures, languages, dialects, religions, and ethnicities.

But despite the magnitude of these differences, Asian-Pacific Americans do share some things in common with millions of other Americans. For one, we are the products of those courageous people who left distant homelands for essentially the same reason that millions of others continue to arrive on our shores, even today. They journeyed here in search of a better life—a quest for justice, equality, peace, and freedom—ideals not always available to them in the old country. But above all, it was the promise of opportunity that was compelling—opportunity founded on education and initiative.

President Obama recently challenged all Americans to win the future by out-innovating, out-educating, and out-building our competition. This call to action resonates with many Americans of Asian-Pacific ancestry. They came to this country to do just that—to compete—to leverage opportunity provided only in this country for education, for innovation, for cutting edge technology and research, and for building the American dream.

In proclaiming Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, President Obama noted, “Today, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders have a profound impact on our society as leaders in all facets of American life, thriving as athletes and public servants, entrepreneurs and artists. As proud members of the United States armed forces, Asian- and Pacific-Islander Americans are helping to write the next chapter of the American story.”

Now, look, my grandparents came from Hiroshima, in their day, one of the poorest regions in Japan. Like others who made similar decisions, they were courageous beyond imagination—allowing themselves to be swept up by the great swirl of human migration, seeking what often eluded them in the country of their birth: the dream of a brighter future for their children—opportunity.

Broad shoulders have always been available for me to stand on as I grew up in Hawai’i and as I made my way in my chosen profession. Some I knew; others paved the way for my journey years before I even knew where I was going.

Asian-Pacific Americans have enriched our country beyond measure—in science and technology, in medicine, education, the arts, sports, fashion, and business—but nowhere, more so, than in the profession of arms.

Asian-Pacific Americans in uniform have written boldly across the pages of our military history—and advanced our social well-being at the same time. When America was plunged into the cauldron of World War II, nowhere was the attack on Pearl Harbor more keenly felt than by the Japanese-American community. Many Americans of Japanese ancestry were reclassified 4C, Enemy Alien. Presidential Decree 9066 ordered the resettlement of more than 120,000 Japanese—almost 60 percent of them American citizens. Despite the injustice, Americans of Japanese ancestry, some volunteering out of those camps, were among the vanguard rushing to defend America against her enemies.

Second generation Japanese-Americans formed all-Nisei units, which were commanded by Caucasian officers. Today, these units and the men who wore their patches, have attained legendary status amongst the Aja community: the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, 232nd Combat Engineer Company, and the military intelligence service.

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team—the famed “Go for Broke!”—remains today one of the most decorated combat formations in the nearly 236-year history of our Nation for its size and length of service. A unit that averaged little more than 4,500 soldiers at any one time, earned seven Presidential Unit Citations—five of them in one month—an incredible 18,143 individual awards, including 9,486 Purple Hearts, and 21 Medals of Honor. All this from a unit that existed, then, for a little over three years before being inactivated.

To give you an idea of their fearsome resolve, I’d like to share a few of their remarkable stories:

Near Seravezza, Italy, his unit pinned down by grazing fire from the enemy’s mountain defense, Private Sadao Munemori launched a one-man, frontal assault, knocking out two machine guns with grenades. Withdrawing under murderous fire and showers of grenades from other enemy emplacements, he had nearly reached a shell crater where two of his buddies sought cover, when a grenade bounced off his helmet and rolled toward his comrades. PFC Munemori rose in the withering fire, dived for the grenade, and smothered its blast with his body.

Posthumously awarded our Nation’s highest military award for valor, the Medal of Honor, PFC Munemori—by his heroic action—gave renewed meaning to the words of scripture: “Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends.” [John 15:13]

Meanwhile, half a world away, near Culis, in Bataan province, a young Philippine Scout named Jose Calugas was in the fray when a battery gun position was bombed and shelled by enemy forces. One gun was put out of commission and all its cannoneers killed or wounded. Sgt. Calugas—a mess sergeant from another battery—voluntarily, and without orders, sprinted 1,000 yards across shell-swept terrain to the disabled gun position. Under heavy artillery fire, he quickly organized a volunteer squad that placed the gun back in commission, and then proceeded to return fire against the enemy. For his bravery, Sgt. Calugas also earned the Medal of Honor.

During that tumultuous time, the Army assigned one Korean-American officer to the all-Nisei 100th Infantry Battalion. But because Korea was then under Japanese occupation, Lieutenant Young Oak Kim was offered a reassignment as his superiors were afraid he wouldn’t mix well in an outfit made up almost entirely of Japanese-Americans. Kim’s response cuts to the heart of our national identity—of who we are, and how we measure our worth. Adamantly refusing the transfer, Lieutenant Kim made and won his case for remaining with his unit, asserting that, “There [are] no Japanese or Koreans here. We’re all Americans and we’re fighting for the same cause.”

Kim went on to serve that cause well at the battle of Anzio, where the U.S. Fifth Army tried to hold onto a 10-mile strip of beach for two months, while the enemy tried to blast it back into the sea. In an attempt to gain desperately-needed intelligence about enemy troop and tank locations to enable a breakout, then-captain Kim volunteered to go behind enemy lines alone. Creeping along drainage ditches, crawling through heavy briar and across 250-yards of wheat fields, he captured and disarmed two German soldiers in broad daylight. The allies got the intelligence they needed and were able to move forward in their drive to liberate Rome. General Mark Clark, the Fifth Army’s commander, personally awarded Captain Kim the Distinguished Service Cross—our Nation’s second-highest award for military valor. Over the course of his career, Colonel Kim would be awarded 18 additional medals, to include two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, and three Purple Hearts. Such was the stuff of Asian-Pacific American heroism in a war of epic proportions—within their formations, “uncommon valor was an all too common virtue.”

These, and other Asian-Pacific Americans who served in uniform, anchored our country’s most fervent hopes for victory and for delivery from our darkest fears. For them, failure was never an option—not even when injustice, segregation, and discrimination invaded their own lives.

How do you characterize the quality of their patriotism? By their example in war and in peace, they became vanguards for social change as well.

Because they cherished freedom and loved liberty enough to fight for it, not only did they preserve those cherished ideals for all of us, but they also bequeathed to us a legacy that empowers us to state, unequivocally, as others have before us, “I know that when I die, I will die a free man, on my feet, not on my knees, with my head up, not bowed to any man.” Their legacy is also my legacy. And it is yours as well. And because we share in that legacy, our children and grandchildren have the right to make the same unequivocal statement of free men.

Today, we celebrate our diversity and the courage of Asian and Pacific pioneers who immigrated to this land of opportunity. Let us keep the flame of their dreams alive—let us preserve the cultures and traditions in this land of the free and home of the brave. God bless those who serve and have served in uniform, and God bless this wonderful country of ours.

Thank you.