FORT POLK, La. - Asian Pacific Americans encompass more than 50 ethnic groups, representing a vast array of languages and cultures from around the world. That culture is celebrated nationally each year in May.
Fort Polk's Asian Pacific Heritage Month observance showcased the unique customs and traditions of Asians and Pacific Islanders, which included dance performances and ethnic cuisines.
Audience members filled the Warrior Community Center May 13 and were welcomed with flowers and leis made of seashells and plumeria flowers. The lei custom was introduced to Hawaii from early Polynesian travelers and has come to symbolize everything from a peace treaty between neighboring tribes to a friendly greeting to visitors.
May was chosen as Asian Pacific Heritage Month to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States 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.
Brig. Gen. Joseph Caravalho Jr., commander of the Southern Regional Medical Command, delivered the keynote, speaking on his experiences as an Asian American growing up in Kaneohe, Hawaii and how his parents helped shape him into a successful person.
"My parents sacrificed life's luxuries to give their five children a good education," he said. "My father was a Honolulu policeman, my mother was a waitress, a maid and a hotel cook - my parents were hard-working, blue collar citizens."
Caravalho said his parents' investment gave him life-long opportunities to compete and be successful in the real world.
"They taught me the value of discipline, hard work and fortitude. Authority figures were to be respected and rules were to be followed," he said. "It was important to be gracious and selfless and above all, they each gave me the tools of strong faith and moral character."
Caravalho also spoke of the success of another Asian Pacific American, Pfc. Anthony T. Kaho'ohahohano, who was awarded with the highest military decoration given by the United States - the Medal of Honor.
Kaho'ohanohano died on Sept. 1, 1951 while serving in Company H, 17th Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, where he was in charge of a machine gun squad, supporting the defensive positioning of Co F when a numerically superior enemy force launched a fierce attack during the Korean War. Kaho'ohanohano ordered his squad to take up a more defensible position and provided cover fire for the withdrawing friendly force. Kaho'ohanohano is credited with gathering a supply of grenades and ammunition and facing the enemy alone. Even after his ammunition ran out, he engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat until his life was taken. The medal was awarded to him earlier this month.
"In closing, I hope you can see I am proud of my heritage, moreover thank you for allowing me to share my perspective with you," Caravalho said.

Zenaida Maraggun, microbiologist at Bayne-Jones Army Community Hospital, along with Cpl. Michael Satumba Sr., 1st Battalion (Airborne), 509th Infantry Regiment, and his children, Michael Jr. and Garbrielle, performed "Pandango sa ilaw," a popular folk dance in the Philippines during the celebration.
It is said to have originated from Mindoro, the seventh-largest island in the Philippines.
The word "pandanggo" is from the Spanish word "fandango," a dance in three-forths time. The phrase "sa ilaw" is Tagalog, the native language of the Philippines, for "in light." It refers to the three oil lamps or candles that a dancer has to balance - one on the head and one on the back of each hand.
"The dance entails balance and rhythm and simulates fireflies at dusk and night," Maraggun said.
Maraggun said she is a firm believer in the importance of understanding others' cultures and diversities.
"I am proud of who I am and my culture - I believe that dance alone can explain diversity, joy, beauty and grace," she said.
June Leoso, organizer of the Fort Polk Pacific Islander dancers, said the group practiced for three months to prepare for the day's celebration. The group performed several Pacific Islander dances, ending the ceremony with "Taualuga," a traditional Samoan dance.
Traditionally, the Taualuga is performed by the son or daughter of a chief and is a solo performance. The Samoan taualuga is known for its graceful refinement, subtle hand and facial gestures, and the stately poise of the dancer's movements and postures. It is a universal practice for modern Samoans to "lafo" - throw money onto the floor or into the air above the dancer - or place money on the dancer in acknowledgment of her skill and status.
Leoso said these types of celebrations bring the community together and make it one big family.
"It's important to teach diversity - it brings us together so we can understand, appreciate and respect one another."