Strength in diversity, empowered by a proud heritage

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- Throughout my Air Force career, I've cooked for, performed at and spoken to Asian-Pacific Heritage festivities from Kunsan to Langley.  With more than 18 million Asian-Pacific Americans from nearly 50 countries and ethnic groups, it can be a challenge to include every group; each with distinct languages, cultures, traditions and beliefs.  But there is a common thread that weaves through the rich and diverse tapestry of the American experience. 

That common thread is the shared optimism and dream of a better life in a country where all things are possible.  This dream is not unique to Asian-Pacific Americans, but is inherent to all peoples who have come to America.  The dream burned in the hearts of the Filipino sailors, who after escaping from Spanish Galleons, settled in Louisiana in 1763.  The dream for a better life for themselves and their descendants also burned in the hearts of Chinese laborers who were integral to the construction of the first Transcontinental Railroad.  And that same dream burns in the hearts of Asian-Pacific Americans who serve in our nation's military.

Today, more than 62,000 or over four percent of active duty service members in the U.S. Armed Forces report themselves as Asian or Pacific Islander.  The leadership opportunities available to today's service members, as well as more than 305,000 Asian-Pacific American veterans, would not have been possible without those who bravely served our nation before us.  We can trace back to the War of 1812 and find Filipino "Manilamen" who fought alongside General Andrew Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans.  Since then, Asian-Pacific Islanders have served in our armed forces, including the American Civil War, where Chinese American John Tomney fought and died at the Battle of Gettysburg.  Japanese American, Kiro Kunitomo, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1877.  In 1911, Filipino American US Army Private Jose Nisperos was the first Asian American to receive the Medal of Honor.  A total of 31 Asian-Pacific Americans have received the Medal of Honor.  Leadership opportunities were further cemented during WWII, with the first Asian-Pacific American general, Brig. Gen. Albert Lyman, a Hawaiian and Chinese American, who commanded the 32d Army Division during the Leyte campaigns. 

However, I owe a debt of gratitude to not only Asian-Pacific American veterans, but also to Americans of all ethnicities who promote equality and inclusion.  Mentorship and building leaders are not exclusive to a certain race or ethnicity.  Mentorship is an "inclusive" gift that we are all empowered to capitalize on and provide.  Throughout my career, my commanders and supervisors were either white or black.  They mentored me and gave me an opportunity to lead. 

Power is the ability to make something or someone do something that they may not normally do.  In our great country, everyone is empowered to take control of their own destiny and through perseverance and intestinal fortitude, prevail over adversity.  So I challenge you to be empowered; to act to do something that you normally may not do...to do something extraordinary and realize your dreams. 

So dare to dream big.  A century ago most Asian-Pacific Americans were constrained to low-skilled, low-wage jobs crowded into ethnic enclaves such as Chinatowns or the plantation villages of my grandparents--targets of official discrimination where federal, state or local laws precluded citizenship, barred home ownership or engaging in certain careers, such as law or even hairdressing.  When my grand uncle served in the U.S. Navy, Filipino Americans were primarily restricted to cook and steward jobs. 

So dream big like the reverend Dr. King who envisioned a world not based on the color of skin, but on the content of one's character.  Dare to dream like veterans Tammy Duckworth & Tulsi Gabbard, respectively the first Thai & American Samoan members of Congress.  Reach for the heavens like astronauts, Eugene Trinh, Lt. Col. Ellison Onizuka, Taylor Wang and Kalpana Chawla, respectively Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese and Indian Americans.  

But while I dare you to dream, the greater challenge is to accept your EMPOWERMENT and act on the dream.  Whether your ethnic background is Asian, Pacific Islander, African, European, Hispanic, or Native American, you are part of this country's rich tapestry and you can have a positive impact on our nation's future.  Diversity has made our nation and our military stronger.  As Americans, we have all been EMPOWERED by this country's legacy of freedom and opportunity.  So dare to dream big, dare to act and promote diversity and inclusion.