Reflecting on Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month


Since 1977, the month of May has been designated to recognize the achievements and contributions to the American story by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.


This year’s theme is “Walk together, Embrace Differences, Build Legacies.” As Team Blaze celebrates Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I would like share my story as an Asian American airman.


I wasn’t born in America. My story begins in the Philippines. There are over 7,000 islands that make up the Philippines and depending on how it’s classified, has between 120 to 175 unique languages and eight major dialects with Tagalog and English as official languages.


The Philippines can be uniquely “disorienting.” One minute you are watching farmers plow rice paddies with water buffalos, and the next you are in the middle of a town fiesta that could pass for Mexico. Just as America can be described as a melting pot for its ethnic diversity, the Philippines combined its blend of Austronesian, Chinese and Spanish cultures with Japanese and American influences into a rich one-of-a-kind cultural experience.


I spent my childhood at the former Clark Air Base. I could still remember watching F-4 Phantoms from the 3rd and 90th Tactical Fighter Squadrons soar the skies from our backyard. As an Asian American living overseas, my parents tried to give me the best of both worlds but when the U.S. ended their military presence in the Philippines in the early nineties, I was cut off from the American way of life and grew up Asian.


Although my father was a U.S. Navy sailor, growing up on an air base fueled my desire to join the U.S. Air Force and in 2001 I finally fulfilled my childhood dream. I left for Basic Military Training on Sept. 17, 2001. While my initial purpose for joining was the pursuit of personal gains, the events that occurred six days prior added a sense of duty into my purpose.


My first years in the Air Force were challenging. I grew up in a household that spoke four languages and because of my noticeable accent, it was difficult for me to communicate with my peers and hindered me from talking in front of an audience. One day, my co-workers started asking me about the Philippines and to my surprise, I was debunking stereotypes about my culture. Over time, I learned to appreciate the beauty of being an Asian-American; that it is a blessing to embody both worlds.


Becoming an NCO provided me the opportunity to not only lead Airmen but also face leadership challenges. While the Air Force provided me the tools I needed to lead, my Asian upbringing offered me a unique perspective when dealing with problems and difficulties. The cultural values I’ve learned from my Filipina mother and American father has been the source of my strength and success not only in my Air Force career, but in life as well.


Chief Master Sgt. Rita Felton, 14th Flying Training Wing Command Chief, wrote an excellent article last year regarding “A Culture of Airmanship.” She wrote, “If you look at our rich heritage you will see every event has produced heroes — individuals who rise to the occasion with remarkable acts of heroism and selflessness.”


In the Air Force, we celebrate our diversity along with the accomplishments of the brave men and women who defied the odds and became the heroes and trailblazers in our service. African-American Heritage Month has the famed Tuskegee Airmen. The trailblazing women of the Women Airforce Service Pilots are one of the most recognizable group honored during Women’s History Month.


While the Asian American Pacific Islanders heritage does not have a lot of recognizable names, their contributions are significant in transforming our Air Force into the world’s best and helped shape the U.S. into a global power. I would like to introduce some of them to you:


-Ellison Onizuka, born in Hawaii, entered the U.S. Air Force in 1970. He was an aerospace flight test engineer before becoming a mission specialist astronaut. Onizuka completed 48 orbits aboard the space shuttle Discovery. He died Jan. 28, 1986, when the Challenger suffered a catastrophic explosion.


-Brig. Gen. Viet Luong became the first Vietnamese-born general officer in the U.S. military on Aug. 6, 2014.


-Pfc. Sado Munemori of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, for five decades, was the only Japanese American to be awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions during World War II in Seravezza, Italy.


-Korean-American Herbert Choy, previously a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, became the first Asian-American federal judge in 1971.


-Pvt. Jose Nisperos became the first Filipino and the first Asian American to be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on Sept. 24, 1911, while fighting as a member of the 34th Company, Philippine Scouts.


-Maggie Gee, of the trailblazing Women Airforce Service Pilots, was one of the first Chinese American woman pilots. In 2010, she and the other WASP pilots received the Congressional Gold Medal for their contributions.


Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month is a celebration of diversity and cultural awareness. Every Airman has a story, and on behalf of every Asian American and Pacific Islander serving in our Air Force, we would love to share ours with you.