Asian Pacific American Heritage Month: We Are Beyond

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month: We Are Beyond

by Cpl. Lena Wakayama, III MEF/MCIPAC Consolidated Public Affairs Office
U.S. Marine Corps

CAMP FOSTER, OKINAWA, Japan -- My first time walking on the beaches of Iwo To, formally known as Iwo Jima, was a singularly perplexing experience. As I listened to the stories of Marine valor that took place 69 years ago, I stared down at the infamous black sand, thinking about the nearly 26,000 lives lost. The blood that was spilt and forever became a part of the island’s history belonged to not only my Marine predecessors, but to my ancestors as well – the proud soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army.

The deep sadness I felt was perhaps one of the most blatant reminders that I am Asian and American. No hyphen.

According to research by Defense Manpower, minorities other than black make up only 7.6 percent of the entire U.S. Armed Forces, meaning Asian and Pacific Islanders make up even less. That being said, my experience as an Asian American in the Marine Corps could be seen as unique, but truth be told, I do not see it as unique at all.

To me, what is unique are the experiences and achievements of Paul Lo, the first Hmong American to become a judge in the U.S.; Nina Davuluri, the first Indian American to be crowned Miss America; and Robert Lopez, the first Filipino American to win an Oscar.

What is unique are the patriotism and courage of the all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team, who fought valiantly for our country despite the internment of Japanese people.

What is unique are the struggles of Wilbur Carl Sze and Kurt Lee, the first people of Asian descent to receive their commissions as officers of the Marine Corps.

Maj. Kurt Lee proved that he was beyond barriers and prejudice as an Asian American officer when he showed his stalwart courage by leading his Marines up a steep hill, fighting Chinese communists the whole way during the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. He was not supposed to be there, having been shot in the arm by a sniper, but he could not abandon his men and thus charged into battle, his arm still in a cast.

Lee earned the Navy Cross and Silver Star for his courageous actions, and passed away in March of this year at 88.

The White House has declared the month of May to be Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. It is a time to look back on these amazing accomplishments and the countless others by the men and women of racial groups that are not always so visible. Asian Pacific Americans are the largest growing minority group in the country, and the White House Initiative of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders states that, “Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander descent have always sought to excel beyond the challenges that have limited equal opportunity in America.”

This is the basis for the theme of this year’s APA Heritage Month, “I Am Beyond.”

It is fitting.

The ambition and the fortitude of people like Lee have shown that they are beyond discrimination. They are beyond people telling them they cannot do something. They are beyond limits.

When I returned to Iwo To a few months later for the Reunion of Honor Ceremony, I had the chance to shake hands with both former U.S. Marines who fought on the island decades ago and Japanese Imperial Army veterans who fought during World War II. It was surreal to think how viciously these men fought against one another and how amicable they are now.

I also could not help but think about how less than a century ago, my life would not have been possible. My parents would not have been able to come to the U.S. and start a new life here. They would not have graduated from American universities, they would not have had successful jobs, and they would not have a daughter who could proudly say that she is Japanese, she is American, and she is a U.S. Marine.

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