In the months following the 2003 U.S. invasion, Iraq was beginning to spiral into insurgency and sectarian civil war. In the midst of this, U.S. and Coalition Forces were tasked with reconstituting the Iraqi armed forces from scratch after disbanding Iraq’s former military.
In July 2004, as a junior Air Force captain, I was assigned as the intelligence liaison to the nascent Iraqi military headquarters, which was temporarily housed in an abandoned Iraqi girls’ school. As I entered the tiny “operations center” crowded with two dozen, chain-smoking, grizzled Iraqi senior officers, I was greeted with a mixture of curiosity, amusement and contempt. The collective question, even as I wore my U.S. Air Force uniform, was “Are you American? You don’t look like an American … Coalition, Filipino, Japanese …?” I have been asked this question many times in many places, as perhaps have other Asian Pacific-American (APA) Veterans.
In his APA Heritage Month letter to the VA workforce, Secretary Shinseki said:
“Today, over 15 million Americans identify themselves as Asian or Pacific Islanders—some 315,000 of them are Veterans. Over 101,000 Asian and Pacific Islanders wear the military uniforms of our nation, and more than 45,000 of those were not born here. Among VA’s ranks, more than 25,000 of our colleagues are of Asian or Pacific Islander descent, and nearly 3,500 of them are Veterans themselves.”
It is somewhat arbitrary that those with ancestry from India, Guam, Cambodia or Korea are lumped together in this category , as each culture is radically different from the other. Although a more detailed breakdown of demographic data by ethnicity is hard to come by, a closer look at the numbers reveals some interesting facts.
 Data from VA-National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics, DoD-Defense Manpower Data Center, Census Bureau)
Even as America’s uniformed services and, subsequently, its Veteran population, reflect the increasingly diverse demographics of the United States, certain values and characteristics remain unchanged. America has always stood for liberty, opportunity and reinvention. And Americans of all races, ethnicities and religions will continue to answer the call to defend those values
“You don’t look like an American”
Now-Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi (left) and Cpl. Guneet Lamba are two of the three Sikh-Americans serving in the U.S. Army.
The history of APA Veterans, as in the larger APA community in the United States, has had its high and low points. Imagine looking like the enemy and having to endure the racial epithets of “nip,” “chink,” “gook,” or “raghead,” from not only your fellow Americans, but your fellow comrades in arms. These ugly words actually emerged from the horrendous wars fought by America in the 20th century against Imperial Japan, North Korea, and North Vietnam. As is the case with any war, the military training, propaganda, and popular culture of the times sought to dehumanize the enemy. Racial stereotyping has continued in the post-9/11 world, against South Asians and Arabs. Unfortunately for APAs — even for those serving the U.S. in uniform — those sentiments have taken generations to erase.
Thankfully, more enlightened views about what an American “looks like” are prevailing in the U.S. and around the world. My own personal account, military service was overwhelmingly positive in terms of the experiences, opportunities and friendships that have enriched my life.
“A Question of Loyalty”
The story of the Nisei Veterans from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and its 100th Battalion is the stuff of legend. The 442nd is the most highly decorated infantry regiment in the entire history of the U.S. military. Other Nisei Veterans served in the Military Intelligence Service in the Pacific Theater, as translators of radio intercepts and interrogators who helped to end the Pacific War early and save countless lives.
What is especially remarkable is that they fought so bravely, even while their parents (among more than 110,000 other Japanese-Americans) were incarcerated in desert internment camps and viewed as the enemy by the very nation for which they fought.
Only in America
Retired Maj. Kurt Chew-Een Lee, the first Asian-American U.S. Marine Corps officer and recipient of the Navy Cross and the Silver Star for valor in the Korean War, said of himself: “I was not the poster boy type — 6-foot-2 with eyes of blue. But, it was a challenge and I enjoyed it. Very few people tried to knock that big chip off my shoulder.”
What is unique about APAs, as with all immigrant groups in America, are the interesting twists and turns of history and fate that brought them to America during the past 200 years. The story that I am most familiar with is the Vietnamese-American story. In 1975 and in the decades thereafter, most Vietnamese arrived in the United States, not as immigrants, but as refugees who lost everything when South Vietnam was invaded and absorbed by the communist north. Yet this cohort of refugees produced heroes: a Rhodes Scholar who graduated at the top of his class at the U.S. Air Force Academy; the commander of the destroyer U.S.S. Lassen, who conducted a port call to Da Nang, Vietnam, where 40 years before, he fled the country on a fishing trawler; and a brigade commander from the famed 101st Airborne Division.
As for myself, I shared with my Iraqi counterparts in 2004 that I found it ironic that I was their “adviser,” whereas American soldiers had been advisers to my father’s Army of the Republic of Vietnam infantry company in Vietnam 40 years earlier. I think that the Iraqis felt more of an affinity for the Vietnamese ability to fight against a superpower and win. In any event, I believe that a lifetime of navigating between two cultures has given me the patience to earn mutual trust and respect.
Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month rightfully celebrates the many achievements of a diverse community and its contributions to this country—Nobel laureates, elected officials, brilliant physicians, billionaire entrepreneurs, professional athletes, and entertainers. But to me, APA Veterans like my Nisei friends Terry Shima and Grant Ichikawa are the real heroes who have forever secured a place in America for Asian Pacific-Americans, and who have influenced the idea that patriotism is about what you do for your country, not what you look like or where your parents come from.
Buddhist monks accompany the casket of Thai-American Cpl. Kemaphoom, Chanawongse, a U.S. Marine killed in action in Iraq.
Today and every day, Americans of all ethnicities give their all at sea, in the air, and on the battlefield. We can expect to see more exotic names, along with Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic symbols, engraved on headstones in Arlington and other national cemeteries. Those who died too young or lost their innocence in the far-flung battlefields from the Somme to Saipan, from Flanders Fields to Fallujah, and from Khe Sanh to the Korengal Valley, represent the very best of us. It is for them and because of them that we celebrate Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.
Thanh “Tino” Dinh works for VA’s Office of Management in Washington, D.C. He previously served on the VA Advisory Board for Minority Veterans. He is a board member of the Vietnamese-American Armed Forces Association and a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy.