CAMP MURRAY, Wash. — Diversity is a strength of the U.S. military, which brings together service members from different backgrounds and helps the force grow stronger.
“Observing the different cultures in the military makes us more inclusive,” said Capt. Tiffany Cadenhead, a personnel officer with the 420th Chemical Battalion in Yakima, Washington, who comes from a multiracial family, with a father from Bangladesh. “There are things I learn from people daily about their backgrounds that I would never have known. Embracing everyone’s heritage is important as a melting pot of people in the military.”
The Washington National Guard enjoys a growing and diverse force of service members with unique experiences. With nearly 1 million Asian Americans in Washington, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month recognizes one of the largest populations of the state.
The observance of the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to the United States first began with a joint congressional resolution signed into law by Jimmy Carter on October 5, 1978. This proposed that the first ten days of May be recognized as "Asian/Pacific Heritage Week." Congress later passed another law in 1992 that extended the celebration to a month. In May 2009, President Barack Obama signed Proclamation 8369, recognizing the month of May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month
The Washington National Guard has a long history of service in Asia, dating to the territorial militia being activated to serve during the Philippine Insurrection of 1899–1902. The conflict ended with the signing of the Philippine Organic Act, creating the Philippine Assembly and the modern government known in the Philippines today.
During World War II, Washington National Guard Soldiers fought the Japanese forces at Guadalcanal on the Solomon Islands and at Luzon in the Philippines, freeing the island nations from Japanese occupation.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, many refugees from Vietnam settled in Washington state with the help of Ralph Munro — an assistant to the Washington governor, who would go on to become the Secretary of State of Washington — and the Washington National Guard.
As thousands fled Vietnam, there was disagreement about how to rehouse refugees in California. In an effort to resolve the crisis, Washington Gov. Dan Evans sent Munro to California to see how Washington could assist. When Munro learned of conditions at a resettlement facility at Camp Pendleton, he offered to have groups of refugees resettle in the Evergreen State.
Washington welcomed 500 refugees in temporary housing at Camp Murray before finding more permanent homes. Nearly 4,000 more refugees followed. Today, almost 70,000 Vietnamese Americans call Washington state home.
“Those kids were the valedictorians of their high school,” said Munro during a visit to Camp Murray in August. “They excelled; they worked hard.”
Capt. Laudy Choum, a signal officer with the 898th Brigade Engineer Battalion, experienced a similar situation. Born in Cambodia during the height of the Khmer Rouge genocide, Choum’s family escaped the country and came to America.
“I wanted to give back and serve the greatest country in the world,” said Choum. “It has protected, educated and given me and my family the opportunity to become successful. The Washington Army National Guard has provided me a platform to be a positive role model and mentor for my family and friends.”
Choum, a full-time employee at the Washington Army National Guard’s information management office, works daily with many Asian Americans, including Maj. Sameer Puri, who moved to America from India, and Sgt. 1st Class Lance Shimamoto, who brings his “Island style” to Washington.
“Heritage appreciation is not something that I just decided to do one day,” said Shimamoto. “It is something that I do every day. This observance allows others that are not around Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders an opportunity to share and understand our traditions, beliefs, and ways of life.”
Another way Washington National Guard members are learning about the traditions of Asian Americans is by taking part in overseas tours. For 20 years, Washington National Guard members have had the chance to visit the Kingdom of Thailand through the Department of Defense National Guard State Partnership Program.
Visits to Thailand often include cultural exchanges, celebrations and the chance to learn about the country’s history.
In 2017, the Washington National Guard and Malaysia signed an agreement, becoming Washington’s second State Partnership Program partner.
“I have always believed that our State Partnership Program is working right when you build lifelong relationships with our partners,” said. Brig. Gen. Gent Welsh, the commander of the Washington Air National Guard. “We should have our young officers connecting with our Thai and Malaysia officers when they are just starting out, and they should grow up together, learn from one another and build those lasting friendships.”