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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

Ft. Belvoir Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month Observance
Ft. Belvoir, VA
May 14, 2013

Good morning, everyone. I'm very honored to be here. Thank you for inviting me. Colonel Wakatake, thanks for that generous introduction. Kay— it's always good to see you. Let me also acknowledge: Generals Mike Linnington and Tom Ayres, and Colonel Greg Gadson. SFC Mark Roberts, Hugo Almaraz, Ebonie Washington, and James Fontenot—thanks for pulling all this together. Other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

I think all of us would like to know more about who we are and where we came from—how we got to today. Because we are, for the most part, a nation of immigrants—not entirely, but in the main— we are fascinated by the decisions made by our ancestors. Some of us may be original inhabitants of this rich land; others came under duress. But we are all Americans in pursuit of a dream.

In 1997, I took command of SFOR, the Peace Stabilization Force, Bosnia-Herzegovina, following the Balkans War of 1992-1995. It was not our war, but we were there to enforce the peace accords in the war's aftermath. SFOR's mission was to provide a safe and secure environment within which the fundamentals of democracy might begin to take root.

My initial task, as the new commander, was to call on the national Tri-Presidency in Sarajevo to explain my mission and what I intended to accomplish. Tri-Presidency, a Serb, a Muslim, a Croat—that word, Tri-Presidency, tells you a lot. Well, they listened patiently, even politely. And when I was done, one of them told me that they were happy that SFOR 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 Krajisnik, Izetbegovic, and Zubak— three European, Caucasian males. You could not 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, whatever our cultures are, next" African-American, Asian-American, Native American, Latino-American, Pacific islander American, among others. I think they understood me, but I'm not sure they believed me. And so, I wish Izetbegovic, Krajisnik, and Zubak were here today, so they could see what I was talking about in action. What you do here today may seem modest, but this is important to our democracy.

Our immigrant heritage in this country is strong and defining. We should not forget that this country's greatness is rooted in our roots.

Our Asian-Pacific islander heritage connects us to one of the most diverse regions of the world—a unique blend of nationalities, cultures, languages, dialects, and religions. The region includes the two most populous nations, China and India. India—the largest democracy and the second largest Muslim nation, and Indonesia—the largest Muslim nation in the world. Asia-Pacific includes, as well, the most remote, sparsely populated island states in the Pacific—for one, Micronesia, where just 110,000 people inhabit over 600 islands covering an ocean expanse five times the size of France. This is our footprint, which helps to understand our stories.

Today, we are honoring the bold, the courageous, the conscientious, and the tough who immigrated from the Asia-Pacific basin, leaving behind all family, friends, and what little property they owned to seek opportunity and follow dreams in this country—for us. In this room may be some original voyagers, as well.

There are almost 20 million Americans of Asian-Pacific Islander heritage in the United States today. Asian-Pacific islander Americans have excelled in the arts, medicine, business, government, religion, sports, science and technology, as well as many other enterprises.

Our spirits have been lifted by the artistry of skaters, Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi, and by the creativity of Yo Yo Ma on cello. Novelist Jhumpa Lahiri inspires us through his gift of words and images, and our lives have been forever changed by the pioneering genius of Yahoo's Jerry Yang.

Like other immigrants, Asian-Pacific islanders struggled initially to make their way in this new country and experienced their own share of discrimination and triumph. But they persevered, made their own mark, and won the respect of others. The importance of family, the dignity of hard work, and the value of personal honor seemed especially important principles.

I was born a Sansei—a third generation American of Japanese ancestry. My own grandparents emigrated here from Hiroshima, one of the poorest regions of Japan, and settled in Hawai'i. They came seeking a better life. As far as I can tell, they never had any plans to go back to the old country, and they never did. I have a hard time imagining today what it must have been like to sever one's ties forever this way—farewells that understood you were never going to see each other again in your lifetimes—and back then, no phones to retain contact. Even writing a letter required going to someone in the community, who was educated and could write.

My mom was orphaned at age 12, and promised she would keep the three youngest of her six siblings together—not letting them be scattered through adoption. She dropped out of elementary school before completing the eighth grade and worked a variety of jobs, as a day servant in the home of a wealthy family, a store clerk, postal clerk, and ticket seller at the local movie theater—any job that would keep the family together and financially afloat.

Married before age 18, she had her first child at age 21. Money was scarce, so she competed for one of two, full-ride, state scholarships to a beauty college—across the ocean in California. Despite her lack of education and a high school diploma, she miraculously landed one of those two scholarships—through sheer hard work, self-study, and determination. I still marvel at her spunk.

At age 22, she chose to leave her husband and year-old son for two long years to travel alone to complete her studies in California, before returning home fully licensed as a beautician and a businesswoman to open her own salon. It was 1933, and the Great Depression was on.

She used to remind me that you had to be tough in the 1930s. There was no welfare, no Social Security, no child labor laws, no Medicare like we have today. You just got out there and hustled -- took any job to start, earned your way up, made folks acknowledge your talents. There is nobility in hard work. Find it. Earn your own way. Failure, not caring for your family, going hungry were not options.

Her story could be that of millions of Americans, who worked hard to make a better life for themselves and their families. In America, my parents and countless others like them had the freedom to pursue their dreams. It is because of these freedoms that so many remarkable Japanese Americans did not hesitate to defend this country, even when their own community experienced discrimination and prejudice.

The attack on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Navy of Japan was felt keenly by Americans of Japanese ancestry. Immediate distrust and suspicion turned into paranoia and anger, which resulted in the relocation of 120,000 Japanese, 62% of them American citizens. Many of their homes, businesses, lands, and other properties were confiscated—112,000 of them were, ultimately, re-settled in re-location camps, consisting of tar paper shacks, enclosed by barbed wire, and guarded by American soldiers. Today, these actions would be unthinkable, but fear and paranoia unbridled are powerful forces.

These citizens lost all rights of citizenship because of their ethnicity. There was little that Americans of Japanese ancestry could do to protect themselves. Because of this injustice, determined men walked the halls of Congress seeking legislative action to return to Americans of Japanese ancestry the right to bear arms to defend their country in time of war, just like every other American citizen. When the bill finally became law, the response was immediate. Out of such patriotism came the legendary Nisei units, comprised of second generation Japanese Americans, the Nisei, commanded by Caucasian officers—the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the MIS, Military Intelligence Service, whose existence was kept classified until the 1970s.

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team had an authorized strength of roughly 5,000 men. We think about 14,000 men passed through her ranks during the war. Nine thousand Purple Hearts and an incredible 21 Medals of Honor were awarded to soldiers of a regiment that was only on active duty for a little over three years. It is believed to be the most decorated unit, for its size and length of service, in the entire history of the United States Army. But the point here is not 21 Medals of Honor—there were certainly many more than 21 heroes on the battlefields where the regiment fought. The point is that Asian-Pacific Islander Americans have made significant contributions and helped to write the history of this county, in both peace and war.

Twenty thousand Chinese fought for America during World War II. In New York City alone, 40 percent of the Chinese male population was inducted into the military, the vast majority into the Army.

In the western Pacific, after months of fighting, the Bataan peninsula fell on 9 April 1942. Upwards of 70,000 Americans and Filipinos, who had fought valiantly together, were thrust into what was to become the Bataan Death March—an even greater test of their courage and determination than battle had been. Some 14,000 Filipino guerrillas continued fighting unconventionally, providing critical intelligence from behind enemy lines until they were repatriated on 16 July 1945.

"Indistinguishable" from the Japanese, Korean-Americans were also discriminated against. Yet, they went forward, risking death in highly-dangerous and secret underground actions in enemy-occupied areas of Asia. In Los Angeles, 20 percent of the city's Korean population joined the National Guard to form the "Tiger Brigade"—trained to defend the Pacific coast against the very real possibility of invasion.

These brave Asian-Pacific-Islander-Americans are part of the Greatest Generation, who came home, went to school under the original GI bill, and went on to assume leadership roles in business, in education, in government, science, the arts, sports, religion, and in their communities.

The Nisei inspired me to military service. I have stood on their shoulders all my life and throughout my 38 years in uniform. I have traveled the world to see and understand why being American is different.

As a young battalion commander serving in Cold War Germany, I heard one of our senior generals declare in a 1984 Memorial Day speech: "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". Then he pointed east and said, "and 37 miles from here, there is a people, a whole nation who cannot say that and would not really understand the fundamental importance of those words."

Well, those words stuck with me. I realized, then, that I had been taking the privilege of my American citizenship a bit for granted. You see, those words are my legacy, as well. "I know when I die, I will die a free man—on my feet, not on my knees, with my head up, not bowed." And those words are your legacy, as well. And because they are our legacy, our children and grandchildren inherit them from us—they are able to make the same statement unequivocally.

Only the free, who cherish freedom, and love liberty enough to fight for it, can bequeath such a legacy to others. The shackled cannot. And the free, who are not willing to fight and die for it, cannot. Only the free who cherish freedom and love liberty enough to fight for it, can bequeath freedom to others—as our ancestors did for us, and as you, in uniform, are doing today. Thank you for your service and for preserving my legacy as a free man.

God bless those who serve and have served in uniform—and God bless this wonderful country of ours.

Thank you.