Striving for excellence in leadership, diversity and inclusion, the 2012 Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month theme was resonated by Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric K. Shinseki as he addressed a crowd of about 250 at the Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall Community Center May 16.

"Since the early years of our nation and our Army, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have played a prominent role in the writing and shaping of the history of the United States," said Maj. Gen. Michael S. Linnington, commanding general of Joint Force Headquarters-National Capital Region and the Military District of Washington during opening remarks. "People from Asian descent have come to America seeking three things: refuge, freedom and opportunity."

As Linnington introduced Shinseki, he said "What you won't read in his biography is that Secretary Shinseki has epitomized the leadership, diversity, courage, tenacity and exclusivity of Asian-American patriots that came before him. "Born in Hawaii to an American Family of Japanese ancestry, he grew up on a sugar plantation community on the island of Kauai," said Linnington.

"What you also won't read in his bio is how Secretary Shinseki fought to continue his Army service despite being severely wounded in Vietnam from a landmine; not realizing at the time he'd be blazing the trail for our current wounded warriors who continue to serve despite life-altering injuries." Shinseki, a retired Army general and Army Chief of Staff from 1999-2003, spoke passionately about why we pause during May each year to celebrate the people of one of the world's most diverse cultures. "Not many places do this -- where we take time and look at our ethnic histories, honor and celebrate what makes, and has made, our country unique and powerful in a sense that we have a composite citizenry, who all see their identities individually, but who think of themselves as Americans first," Shinseki said.

"Today 90,000 Asian-Pacific Americans serve in uniform. They've paved the way for all of us," he said. Shinseki talked about contributions made by second generation Japanese-Americans, referencing Soldiers of the 100th Infantry Battalion of the 442d Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service. "I know those are not well known units to most, but inside the Japanese-American community, these are legendary units. We grow up hearing about them."

He said the performance in battle of these three ethnically created units were "likely to never be repeated and never to be outdone." Shinseki said after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, there was deep fear and suspicion of the American people toward Japanese-Americans resulting in executive order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. "Seventy years ago, nearly 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry -- men, women and children, more than 60 percent of them American citizens were ordered to war relocation camps in desolate and remote locations. Many were declared enemy aliens just because of their ethnicity, despite their American citizenship," he said. "They were imprisoned in tar paper shacks, surrounded by barbed wire and were guarded by American Soldiers -- Americans being guarded by Americans," said Shinseki.

"Despite the injustice of that order, young Americans of Japanese ancestry from all around the country, including those camps, volunteered to serve in uniform -- demanded the right -- walked the halls of this congress, demanded the right to bear arms at a time of national emergency. They considered their privilege alongside other Americans to do their duty… to demonstrate something that needed no proving as far as they were concerned. That was their loyalty as American citizens …they chose to demonstrate that in battle." Shinseki pointed out that the 100th Infantry Battalion of the 442d Regimental Combat Team of World War II in existence for about two-and-a-half years, numbered about 4,500 at its peak. However, in battle with casualties, a lot more Soldiers rotated through. These Soldiers garnered more than 18,000 individual awards in less than three years of service, including 21 Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, 560 Silver Stars, more than 4,000 Bronze Stars, nearly 9,500 Purple Hearts and seven Presidential Unit Citations. He stressed no other regiment in 237 years of U.S. Army history has achieved this number of awards. He also referenced work of the Military Intelligence Service, an equally courageous unit whose work was highly classified.

"They were intelligence officers, linguists, translators and spies. Because of the nature of their work, their wartime missions were kept secret," Shinseki said. "The fact that they even existed was kept secret … until the 1970s most of us didn't know of them." On Oct. 5, 2010, the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the 442d Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion, as well as the 6,000 Japanese-Americans who served in the Military Intelligence Service during World War II. Shinseki talked about other Asian-American and Pacific Islanders and their contribution to military service. "Following World War II, these battle-worn and war-tested men and women came home to put America on the road to greatness.

"Providing leadership in government, business, education and so many other ways they've made their marks," he said. "They brought back a tremendous sense of service, of sacrifice and of having served something bigger than themselves with views and politics different from their own. "Only the free who cherish freedom and love liberty enough to fight for it can bequeath freedom for others … as our ancestors did for us and as those of you in uniform in this audience and your Families and others do for us today."

Following Shinseki's speech, the Hawaiian Entertainment Company from Baltimore, Md., provided lively dancing as the group's speaker shared the origin and history of each dance. One dance routine "Welcome to Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud, home of the Maori" told the story of the Maori tribe of New Zealand, descendants of an ancient line of Polynesian people. This haka dance, which included rhythmic movements, facial expressions and shouted words, was an audience participation number. Linnington, MDW Command Sgt. Maj. Michael W. Williams, Headquarters Command Battalion Command Sgt. Maj. Richard Jessup and 1st Sgt. Bruce Williams were among the volunteer dancers.

The cultural performance concluded outside the Community Center with a fire dance followed by ethnic food sampling. Azusa Johnson, Headquarters Command Battalion's chief of plans, operations and training, served as the master of ceremonies. Johnson, a native of Japan, wore a traditional kimono from her homeland. The national anthem was sung by Master Sgt. Antonio Giuliano, U.S. Army Chorus, and the invocation was delivered by Chap. (Lt. Col.) Clyde Scott, JBM-HH installation chaplain.