Every time Veteran's day comes around, I think about my grandfather William (Wei-Lim) Lee who, like 13,000 other Chinese Americans, fought in WWII in America's Armed Forces.
In understanding the significance of the Chinese Americans who served in WWII it is important to remember that prior to the war the Chinese Exclusion Act was still very much in effect. My grandfather was forced to cross unlawfully from Canada, because the law made almost any Chinese immigration whatsoever illegal. When they arrived, immigrants like my grandfather were forced to take marginal jobs in laundries and restaurants because those were the only opportunities left for a Chinese immigrant. So it is deeply ironic that in spite of all the governments' best efforts to marginalize and exclude the Chinese from American society, that Chinese Americans still signed up to fight in the war in proportionally larger numbers than the rest of the nation.
The Chinese Americans who served in this time fought alongside white soldiers and proved through their courage and bravery that they too were loyal and capable Americans. Men in all-Chinese American outfits like the 407thAir Service Squadron and the 987thSignal Company broke down stereotypes by showing that Chinese Americans were able to do more than just perform manual labor, they were able to fly planes in combat and lead on the battlefield. For many of these veterans, this change in outlook was accompanied by a legal change as well, as more than 40 percent who were foreign-born prior to their service became eligible for citizenship benefits. This is what allowed my grandfather to bring his wife of 20 years over from his home village and start his family, something that never would have been possible without his service.
Yet today, we are struck with the harsh reality that many Asian American and Pacific Islander service members are not adequately recognized for their military contributions. One of the worst examples of this troubling trend today is race-based military hazing in the Armed Forces, which has caused the deaths of Chinese American soldiers Private Danny Chen and Lance Corporal Harry Lew. Another heinous breach of faith is the poor quality of services provided by the Veterans Administration (VA) to veterans living in U.S. territories. In American Samoa, home of the U.S. Army's top recruiting station, there is no VA hospital or medical center. A small clinic serves basic medical needs, but for any significant illness or injury, veterans must travel to Hawaii, a five-hour flight that is only available twice a week.
I take pride in the fact that as a staff member at OCA, I can be a small part of the fight to ensure that our military members and veterans are given the full rights and privileges that they are owed. Our organization has worked closely with the Army and the Department of Defense to eliminate the threat of race-based hazing from within the Armed Services. Additionally, we are working to help bring issues facing territorial Pacific Islanders to national attention, including ensuring that veterans and their families have proper access to services and the benefits of U.S. citizenship.
So on this Veterans Day, I remember the sacrifices that my grandfather and other veterans of Asian and Pacific Islander descent made for this country, but also the commitments we made to our veterans that we must strive to honor