Secretary of Veterans Affairs speaks at observance
May 22, 2013
The Secretary of Veterans Affairs spoke about the value of the U.S.'s diversity during Fort Belvoir's Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month observance Tuesday.
Retired Gen. Eric Shinseki shared his sentiments with servicemembers and civilians in the Fort Belvoir Officers' Club.
"Our immigrant heritage in this country is strong and defining," Shinseki said. "We should not forget that this country's greatness is rooted in our roots: where we come from."
Fort Belvoir and the Operational Support Airlift Agency Equal Opportunity Offices co-hosted the celebration of Asian-Pacific history and culture.
Attendees partook in the festivities by listening to Shinseki, viewing educational displays and enjoying a food sampling of egg rolls, rice and meatballs.
Shinseki, the keynote speaker, called the U.S. a diverse nation with many ethnic groups contributing to the country's success. Asian-Pacific Americans have helped contribute to this success through their efforts in business, art, politics and science.
"Asian-Pacific Islander Americans have made significant contributions to help write this country's history in both war and peace," Shinseki said.
Shinseki was sworn in as the Secretary of Veterans Affairs in 2009 after receiving a nomination from President Barack Obama. Prior to this position, he served 38 years in the U.S. Army. His assignments included the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army and Vice Chief of Staff positions. Shinseki's awards include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal and Legion Of Merit with Oak Leaf Clusters.
Shinseki's roots trace back to his grandparents who emigrated from Japan to the U.S. seeking a better life. His mother was orphaned at age 12 and dropped out of elementary school to work. She used the money she earned to keep herself and her three youngest siblings together as a Family. Shinseki's mother's hard work and pride inspired him to pursue his education and military career. He was also inspired by Asian-Pacific Americans who helped defend the U.S. during conflicts such as World War II. These same servicemembers returned home and assumed leadership roles in business, education, sport and religion, Shinseki said.
"I have stood on their shoulders all my life and throughout my 38 years in the Army," Shinseki said. "They provided an opportunity for me to choose my profession, compete and find my way."
Sgt. 1st Class Ebonie Washington, Fort Belvoir EOO advisor, said Shinseki is a good example of the theme for Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month: "Building Leadership: Embracing Cultural Values and Inclusion."
"He's a third-generation immigrant that rose to the level of a military general," Washington said. "He's a great inspiration to our military and our citizens."
According to the Library of Congress, Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month originated in 1977 when U.S. House Representatives Frank Horton, Norman Mineta, Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga introduced two separate bills requesting President Jimmy Carter to proclaim the first 10 days of May as Asian-Pacific Heritage Week. Carter signed a joint resolution designating the annual celebration in 1978.
President George H.W. Bush extended the celebration to the entire month in May 1990.
The month of May was chosen to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese citizens to the U.S. on May 7, 1843, and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. The majority of the workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants.
The work ethic and positive energy Asian-Pacific Americans bring to the workforce hits home for Sgt. 1st Class James Fontenot, OSAA EOO advisor. Fontenot works with several Asian-Pacific Americans who strengthen OSAA and help the unit complete its mission, Fontenot said.
"There's a certain pride they show every day that gives us a better insight into their culture and diversity," Fontenot said. "I'm proud to be able to learn from that as an EOA."
One of the Soldiers Fontenot is referring to is Sgt. Frank Whitehead, OSAA equal opportunity leader, who is part Hawaiian, Filipino and African-American. Whitehead, whose Family members fought in World War II, is inspired by the sacrifices of past generations of Asian-Pacific Americans to succeed in his career.
"You need to know where you're coming from to know where you're going," Whitehead said. "People make so many strides to get to certain points, and then it's up to us to keep it going."