Each year, we set aside the month of May to honor and celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander Americans and their immense contributions to our way of life. Those contributions reflect the vibrancy of cultures that originate in a vast geography that is diverse, exotic, and brilliant in color.
The sheer size of the Asia-Pacific region, some 40 nations, makes it impossible to acknowledge appropriately each of its fascinating cultures in a single observance. With some exceptions, they are people of color, and because island communities predominate, many know the Pacific Ocean intimately. Yet, many others find their roots in the cultures of two of the world's most populous nations—China and India—where large populations never see the ocean in their lifetimes. Asian and Pacific Islander Americans come from tribes, kingdoms, empires, democracies—and, yes, from nations with oppressive regimes that drove the unbowed to our shores, where freedom and liberty beckoned.
With them came their love of music and dance, their dress, cuisine, art, languages, and the love of family. Their customs span social structures—from stone-age tribes to space-age societies. Some islanders were voyagers, both for commerce and curiosity. They perfected the art of navigating without instruments, using instead the currents, stars, and the wind to guide and propel them across broad reaches of the Pacific. Even today, mariners and helmsmen have barely deciphered their methods.
They were courageous beyond imagination, drawn into the swirl of human migration simply by the promise of opportunity. Venturing beyond their communities was a search for better lives for themselves and, more importantly, their children. Those who made the original journeys left behind what little security they had—family, friends, work, property, perhaps little more than a hut on a small patch of land. They worked hard to fulfill the dreams of better futures for their children. To their disappointment, some children, all too soon, found customs and traditions less important, and elders worried that if all culture were lost, their identities as a people would not be far behind—that sense of who they are, where they came from. So, celebrating heritage months like this one rekindles in important ways memories of a vibrant past.
Today, over 15 million Americans identify themselves as Asian or Pacific Islanders—some 315,000 of them are Veterans. Over 101,000 Asian and Pacific Islanders wear the military uniforms of our Nation, and more than 45,000 of those were not born here. Among VA's ranks, more than 25,000 of our colleagues are of Asian or Pacific Islander descent, and nearly 3,500 of them are Veterans themselves.
With great pride, I join the Department of Veterans Affairs in honoring our Veterans and all our citizens of Asian and Pacific Islander descent and thank them for keeping our country the beacon of democracy and promise for those still hungering for opportunity.
Eric K. Shinseki