WASHINGTON (Army News Service) -- For more than 150 years, almost as soon as men and women from Asia began arriving in the United States, they began defending the United States, said Army Secretary Eric Fanning.

"Asian Americans and Pacific islanders have contributed to the power of our example and the example of our power. It's a tradition that dates back to the Civil War," Fanning told his audience during keynote remarks for the National Forum for Asian American and Pacific Islander Military Members and Veterans Monday.

The event, which was held at the Women's in Military Service to America memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, was sponsored by the President's Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, a commission that was restored in 2009 by President Obama.

"This initiative by the president is to support military members and veterans in all of our diverse groups, particularly in the Asian-American and Pacific Islander demographic," explained Ravi Chaudhary, a member of the commission.

According to Chaudhary, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the largest and fastest growing demographic in the nation.

"As this demographic grows, so too are the men and women who are raising their right hand to serve," he said. "This forum is about serving them, giving them a voice, and ensuring that both the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs hear their voice and take a look at policies going forward."

The day-long event included panels on the future of diversity and inclusion in the DOD. Speakers discussed the successes of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander service members and the challenges they face. Panels also touched on challenges faced by veterans, including post-traumatic stress disorder and the risk of suicide.

Secretary Fanning opened the forum by highlighting the importance of diversity in the armed forces and went on to point out how recent policy changes have increased the opportunity for all Americans to serve and, as a result, strengthened the military by bringing aboard an array of diverse viewpoints.

He cited as examples of the military's leadership in furthering diversity both the desegregation of the armed forces a full 16 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the military providing equal pay to women 40 years ago, at a time when women were not widely represented in the private-sector workforce.

"When critics said our military was too set in its ways, too big, or too afraid to move forward with change, our men and women in uniform proved them wrong," Fanning said. "In the process, they've proved what's right about our country. Today, when critics say the military is not a place for social experimentation, they may be right. But equality and inclusivity are not experiments, they are American values."

Today, while the U.S. military is growing smaller, it is still challenged with deterring Russian aggression alongside European allies, providing stability in the Pacific, and serving as the backbone for the nation's counter-terrorism mission, Fanning said.

"Our Soldiers alone are serving in more than 140 countries worldwide," he said. "For our Army and military to accomplish this diverse set of missions, we need our men and women in uniform to harness the power of diverse teams. We need experience, critical thinking, and creativity in our force, but most importantly, we need teams of people who think differently from one another and yet are joined together in common cause."

Fanning said the strongest Army, and the strongest military, will represent the entire U.S. population, regardless of faith, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

"When the people of the world see the ability of the American people to join together, reflecting every party of this country, and every thread of our American fabric, within our military, they see the power of our example," he said.

"And it is both the power of our example and the example of our power, which makes our military the most powerful fighting force in history."