Fighting to Be American

July 31, 2014

Image credit:  AP
Reuters via

Last year, my younger cousin joined the Army. On the day he
left home for training, his dad called my dad, tearful and upset. What was going to happen
to him? my uncle wondered. Was he going to be okay? My father tried to reassure him. “Thanks
to him,” he said, “our family is finally American.” 

When my dad proudly relayed this conversation to me, my
first response was, Thanks a lot, Dad.  What about all the decades our family has spent building our lives here? Did he really think we needed my cousin to join the Army to make
it official?

But my dad’s heartfelt response to my uncle also reminded me of the
sobering fact that, for nearly two centuries, Asian immigrants tried
to fight their way
to naturalized citizenship by serving in the U.S. military. And Native-born AAPI servicemen and women, especially those fighting in wars on Asia-Pacific soil, have
often found themselves having to prove their loyalty to the U.S. by risking their
lives beyond duty. (A recent obituary,
for instance, described how native Californian Lt. Kurt Chew-Een Lee, the first
non-white officer in the Marines, was seriously wounded in the Korean War
during a battle where he shouted “Don’t shoot, I’m Chinese!” in Mandarin to
confuse and entrap the surrounding Chinese forces.) The relationship between military
service and citizenship has long been a complicated matter for Asians in

In July of last year, my
husband and I brought my then-81-year-old father to Washington, DC for
the 60th anniversary commemoration of
the Korean War armistice. My father was eighteen when he began fighting in that war, and he eventually became a colonel in the ROK Army. At the commemoration, flooded with emotion, I had no room in my heart for critical or negative feelings. When a woman from Texas came up to us in
the hotel lobby, embraced my dad, and handed him a card that said,
“Thank you for your sacrifice,” I let myself believe that her gesture meant my dad was being fully
accepted as American -- and a hero, at that.

Now, looking back a year later, it’s easier for me
to critique the ceremony's erasures. Even before the event, I was frustrated by how difficult it was to find information that wasn’t solely aimed at American veterans
of the Korean War. And while there were many
Korean veterans in attendance, none of the official events that weekend were
designed to honor or include them. As my dad and so many other Koreans had ended up in America because
of this war that ravaged their homeland, I thought the ceremony should
have at least acknowledged their presence by making them an
integral part of the event, and not just spectators.

Unsurprisingly, all the glowing rhetoric that day -- from President
Obama’s carefully nonpartisan speech to the official book gifted to
attendees as a souvenir -- emphasized the words “unforgotten” and “victory” in
an effort to reverse the longstanding U.S.-centric view of the Korean War as a
forgotten conflict with no end in sight. But the greatest irony, in
retrospect, was the sight of former Veterans Affairs Secretary (and highest-ranking Asian American) Eric Shinseki, soon to be embroiled in one of the largest
in the VA’s history, sitting a few feet away from the President as he spoke
the words
: “Here in America, no war should ever be forgotten, and no
veteran should ever be overlooked.”

For those of us in the AAPI community, it’s not
just our veterans -- including our immigrant veterans -- who are often overlooked. It is also our active-duty servicemen and women, many of whom experience
what researchers call “race-related
throughout their military careers. A 2007 study of AAPI
Vietnam War veterans found that race-related stressors were significantly
related to PTSD symptoms. Then
again, we don’t need to look to the past for examples of what race-related
stress can do. As a recent
Hyphen post
reminded us, we have Private Danny Chen. Lance Corporal Harry Lew. Former officer Anu Bhagwati, who left
the Marines
because of the discrimination and harassment she experienced. As
Iraq War veteran and LGBTQ activist Lieutenant Dan Choi says,
“Being an Asian American serving in the military, it’s very isolating.”

Despite all this, however, there has been an unexpected surge
of young AAPI military recruits since the recession. According
to former Army infantry captain Tim Hsia at The New York Times At War blog
, there is a rising need for Asian Americans to serve in the military as public servants,
cultural interpreters, and potential peacekeepers in the Asia-Pacific region. The reasons that are given for the actual
surge in AAPI recruits -- the military’s educational incentives; the fact that new recruits are born
after the Korean and Vietnam Wars; the greater visibility of high-ranking Asian
Americans in the military -- are more open to debate (as can be seen in the lively
comments section of this NPR
). One reason that particularly resonates, given the fraught history of Asian Americans in the U.S. military, is the
one from an anonymous Korean American Naval Academy recruit, who said
that he joined the military in order to gain full acceptance and entry into
mainstream American society

As for whether the U.S. military is now a safe
place for Asian Americans, Tim Hsia’s answer
is a resounding yes. Perhaps I am more cynical, but I do maintain some cautious hope. For the sake of all our immigrant
and native-born AAPI veterans and servicemen and women who are currently
serving in the Armed Forces, I hope that their service and
sacrifice need not be proven in order for them to be viewed and accepted as Americans -- but will instead be equally
recognized and honored because they
are Americans.

. . .

A few links to information about AAPI veterans and
active-duty personnel:

  • AAPI
    Fact Sheet from the Center for Minority Veterans
    : A comprehensive summary of data on AAPI veterans and active-duty servicemen and
    women. Statistics from the past three years show that there are approximately
    300,000 AAPI veterans and 50,000 active-duty members currently serving in the
  • 2013/14 Directory of Veterans
    and Military Service Organizations
    : A
    comprehensive directory of veterans' groups in the U.S. released by the VA. This year’s directory lists a few Asian
    American veterans' groups, as well as groups for veterans of wars based in the Asia-Pacific,
    though the latter groups don't appear to address the specific demographic and needs of
    immigrant veterans of these wars.