Growing up Japanese and Italian American in the US and the Army

By Command Sgt. Maj. Jason MontesantoMay 17, 2024

Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Montesanto
Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Montesanto (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

I was born the second child of three to my parents, Laurette Nana Kawasumi and John Lewis Montesanto, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Originally from Los Angeles, both my parents were the descendants of relatively recent immigrants to the United States — my mother being second generation, or nisei, Japanese American and my father being fourth generation Italian American. While we did not speak either Italian or Japanese much in our house growing up, the connection to both sides of my family’s culture is deeper than language.

My siblings and I got a lot of exposure to both Italian and Japanese cultures growing up. Some aspects were unique to each, and others were complimentary. One concept shared between the two that was instilled in us was discipline. We were raised very strictly, we did not talk back to our parents and only very lightly questioned when we were told to do something. If we did not comply, a strong, corporal rebuke was made. The two cultures also stressed the importance of learning. Our academic performance was emphasized by both our parents. There are advantages and disadvantages to this kind of upbringing, but overall it prepared me for service in the Army.

Both sides of my family also share a legacy of military service. During World War II, despite immigrating to the U.S. in the 1920s or 1930s, the entire Japanese side of my family was interned in the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California as part of President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, issued in 1942. That included my grandparents, mother, aunts and great-uncle. However, my great-uncle enlisted in the 442nd Infantry Regiment — an all-Japanese American unit formed out of volunteers from the incarceration camps. The 442nd would go on to become the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in U.S. Army history. He was hit twice by a German machinegun during his service but survived and went on to live a long life. My grandfather had also completed compulsory service in the Japanese Navy prior to emigrating from Japan.

Grandfather, aunts and mother of Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Montesanto.
Grandfather, aunts and mother of Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Montesanto. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

For the most part, I did not grow up with intimate stories of my relative’s military service. I only knew that they had served, and in which country and branch. The only minor exception was hearing some of my Italian grandfather’s stories of his time in WWII in the Merchant Marine. He shared the unfortunate truth that his ship sometimes had to leave people stranded in the ocean for fear they would be attacked by submarine if they stopped to help them.

Despite not knowing much of my family’s service history, I was fascinated with the military from a very young age. I would watch war documentaries at a time when most kids were still probably watching cartoons. Surprising no one, I joined the Army months after graduating from high school. I was an infantryman and assigned to the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). In 1990 I was deployed during Operation Desert Shield as a machine gunner and was part of the spearhead into Iraq in February 1991. I later served with the 101st Pathfinder Detachment (Airborne).

I endured some good, hard training and an austere deployment in my first stint in the Army. I left the Army in 1995 to pursue educational goals, going on to graduate from the University of Nevada, Reno with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering in 2001.

One of the regrets I have in life is not immediately rejoining the Army after graduation. Instead, I was took an internship at a major software corporation and worked there for four years. When the War on Terror started, I found myself distracted from and uninterested in my corporate job. I closely followed the war’s progress on the news and began to wish I was in the company of Soldiers at war. I re-entered the Army in 2005, initially assigned to Korea as an infantryman but transitioned to psychological operations in 2008.

As a psychological operations specialist I have been deployed to Afghanistan, Panama and Ukraine. I was also the first PSYOP NCO to attend and complete the National Defense University’s Master of Strategic Security Studies program. Combat deployments have a certain kind of stress that seems to come in waves, the masters’ program felt like a constant heavy weight on my shoulders and in some ways was my most stressful year in the Army.

The name of Command Sgt. Maj. Montesanto's great-uncle, highlighted, on the 442nd Regimental Combat Team Memorial Wall.
The name of Command Sgt. Maj. Montesanto's great-uncle, highlighted, on the 442nd Regimental Combat Team Memorial Wall. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

I think what helped me get through those deployments, higher education and challenging leadership positions can be traced back to heritage. I admired my grandfather’s strong work ethic from a young age. When my family was released from Manzanar after the war, my grandfather went back to being a landscaper and gardener in Los Angeles. He and my grandmother worked hard to own their house and raise three daughters. He continued to work into his 80s, lifting equipment into his truck by himself — something that would probably be challenging to someone in their 20s.

My mother had that same sort of grit and toughness that my grandfather exhibited. She was always up at no later than 5 a.m. regardless of when she got to bed. She had breakfast and dinner made for every morning and night. In addition to tending to the family, my mother cared for the horses we had growing up. She did the lion’s share of the job while my dad was at work and me and my siblings were at school. That included feeding, grooming, exercise and the maintenance of the corrals and stables. She would be out every morning with the horses in the snow, rain, sleet and freezing cold.

The self-discipline of my mother and grandparents was a quiet type. I never once heard them complain about having to get up early, work hard or do any of the things they needed to do to be successful. They all just went about their days, putting in the effort, getting everything done and being happy with family in those moments when time and space allowed. Whenever I would start to feel sorry for myself, I often thought them and what they would think if I weren’t giving my all to be the best Soldier I could be.

I feel privileged having had a Japanese side to my family growing up. I think the culture instills some things in people that lead to success in life. It teaches manners, discipline, attention to detail, an almost militaristic respect when interacting with your older relatives, the importance of knowledge, and loyalty to one’s family and country.

Some might find it surprising that my family held no animosity or ill-feelings towards the United States for being incarcerated for four years during World War II. I never once heard any of my relatives say anything that could be construed in that way. We always just loved our country and felt gratitude for being able to live somewhat prosperously, freely and peacefully. My fascination with all things military initially brought me into the Army, but my love of country brought me back into it and it has kept me here now for 25 years. That was learned from my family growing up.