Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough
Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander (AANHPI)
VA Central Office Heritage Month Celebration
May 26, 2022
Lourdes, thanks for that kind introduction, and for your leadership of VA’s Center for Women Veterans.
Let me also thank Bridget Souza, Ron Sagudan, and all who worked on our Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month Planning Committee, for helping to organize this important event. My deep appreciation to you all.
Our Nation is far greater than the sum of its many parts. We are a country made stronger, never weaker, by the diversity and range of people who sacrificed and took great risks to travel to America—truly, we are a Nation of Nations.
Today’s ceremony honors that national heritage of diversity by recognizing the creativity, determination, sacrifices, and toughness of the millions of Asian-Native Hawaiian-Pacific Islander Americans who have contributed to the fabric of our nation, woven a rich tapestry of culture, and contributed their gifts to every facet of our way of life.
With each new arrival on our shores, and each new generation, that gift continues today.
Through the generations, AANHPI Americans have made the United State their home for the same reasons so many others did—the hope of a better life, not just for themselves, but more importantly, for their children and grandchildren—the pursuit of justice, equality, opportunity, security...and for the promise of peace and freedom to pursue a better future.
From the Pacific Ocean to the Pacific rim, the curiosity, industry, and entrepreneurship of AANHPI individuals helped build America—from our earliest days when they toiled as laborers on railroads, farms, and fisheries.
Today, AANHPI Americans stand amongst the vanguard in every field of endeavor: Science, medicine, academia, music, the arts, the law, sports, fashion, cuisine, and so many other fields—none more important than in our military and public service.
I am fortunate to walk in the footsteps of one such person—General, US Army, retired, and former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Secretary Shinseki’s grandparents immigrated to Hawaii from Japan at the beginning of the last century; he grew up in the working-class sugar cane plantation community on the island of Kaua’i.
Inspired to service by the stories of his uncles, who fought in the legendary, segregated, 442nd Regimental Combat Team of World War II fame, he pursued a West Point appointment, graduating in 1965.
Serving two tours in Vietnam with the 9th and 25th Infantry Divisions, he earned three Bronze Stars for Valor and two purple hearts. Both his combat tours ended with him being seriously wounded—followed by lengthy periods of rehabilitation and recovery.
Yet, through sheer determination and perseverance, he recovered from his wounds and had an amazing 34-year Army career:
- Teaching at West Point in the Department of English
- Commanding the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division
- Commanding the legendary 1st Cavalry Division
- Serving as the Deputy Chief of Staff, Operations and Plans, for the US Army
- Commanding General, US 7th Army and, concurrently, the NATO Stabilization Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina
- We’d be here all day if I went on.
General Shinseki ended his distinguished Army career as the first Asian American 4-star General, Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, and Army Chief of Staff from 1999 to until his retirement in 2003.
But his service was not yet complete.
In 2009, he became the 7th Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and the first Asian American to hold the position, after answering President Obama’s call back to service.
He said, this job “offers me the opportunity to give back to those who served with me and for me in uniform, and to the men and women on whose shoulders I stood as I grew up in the profession of arms.”
During the longest tenure of any VA Secretary or Administrator of the Veterans Administration—five and a half years—Secretary Shinseki:
- Led a reduction in backlogged claims from over 600,00 to well below 100,000
- Initiated an enterprise-wide focus on ending the scourge of Veterans homelessness, significantly reducing the number of Veterans sleeping on our streets
- Laid the groundwork for a new electronic health record integrated with DoD—among many other accomplishments.
Secretary Shinseki is, in so many ways, the best of us—living a life that exemplified the importance of family, the inherent dignity of hard work, the limitless possibilities opened through that hard work and through education, and the timeless value of integrity and personal honor.
Most of all, he fought like hell for our nation, and then he fought like hell for his fellow Veterans.
I am proud to walk along the trail he helped blaze. We all should be.
In closing, let me just say that celebrations such as this are so important. Diversity is always our strength—never our weakness—that’s the truth.
That’s what distinguishes us from so many other nations.
It is true because we make it true, and events like this remind us of and strengthen that enduring truth.
General Shinseki is a perfect example of that. As are our guests at today’s ceremony—our own David Sloniker, Lieutenant Colonel Tran, and Chef Aiona! As are so many of you here today, and across VA.
They are—you are—what makes us great. And it is the great honor of my life to serve alongside you.
God bless you all, thank you for your service, and may we continue to serve AANHPI Veterans, and all Veterans, as well as they’ve served us.