Marines come from many backgrounds, cultures and locations, but as Marines, they use their personal heritages and traditions to strengthen the ranks of the Corps. In May, as the Nation observes Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the Marine Corps proudly honors Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders who contributed to its success.
This month’s theme, “Walk Together, Embrace Differences, Build Legacies,” defines the struggles Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders faced in a process that was not always favorable and the obstacles they overcame.
Maj. Kurt Chew-Een Lee, the first Marine officer of Chinese descent, broke barriers of segregation when he enlisted in 1944 and retired as a Major in 1968. He remains a prominent symbol for AAPI Heritage Month and Lee is recognized alongside all Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders within the Corps.
In 1979, the observance was originally only a week long and U.S. Presidents continued this tradition until President George H. W. Bush designated the first AAPI Heritage Month in May, 1990. Congress permanently designated May as AAPI Heritage Month in 1992.
Sergeant Rubin Tan, a marketing public affairs specialist with Recruiting Station Baton Rouge, 6th Marine Corps District, explained how AAPI month reminds him of his family, providing him an opportunity to teach others about his heritage.
His family came to the United States in 1979 to escape the oppression they faced in China, said Tan. As refugees, his grandparents fled on foot with his two uncles and mother, who were all under age 10. Tragically, his grandfather was captured and imprisoned by the Vietcong, tortured and starved to death. The rest of his family ultimately reached Cambodia, where a plane took them to New York.
Different Asian-American and Pacific Islander histories have motivated Tan in the Corps, he said. To see others succeed makes him proud and he wants to do the same for others.
“Every Asian-American and Pacific Islander I have met in the Corps has influenced me to better myself and to become a better mentor,” he said. “I am always looking to adopt traits that will make me a better Marine and to instill my best into others.”
Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders came to America and for more opportunities, he said. Some found those opportunities in the Corps. After that, it was about bringing honor to their families and continuing their legacy.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II, Asian descendants were part American society but discriminated against and incarcerated. Ten Japanese internment camps were created in seven states to house as many as 120,000 Japanese and their descendants within the U.S. It wasn’t until 1988 that Congress apologized for the action, awarding survivors and their heirs $20,000 each.
As time passed and with the help of Marines like Lee and Tan, cultural differences were pushed aside. Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders continued to make strides in America’s workforce and the armed forces.
Maj. Anthony J. Nguyen, a Vietnamese descendant and operations officer for 9th Communication Battalion, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, extended the example Lee set for immigrants and their descendants to join the Corps.
“This month is a good reminder of my heritage and how it has influenced my decisions to serve,” said Nguyen.
He explained how his family traveled to America just before the fall of Saigon. His father was part of the South Vietnamese Army and served alongside a U.S. soldier from Texas, who offered to sponsor his family in Houston after the war.
“My family story of how we moved to the States has inspired me to serve so other immigrants can enjoy the freedoms and prosperity that my family has been fortunate enough to experience in the U.S.,” said Nguyen.
As a civilian, Nguyen said he faced stereotypical jokes. But he has not faced discrimination in a professional setting.
“Life in the Marine Corps is simple,” he continued. “From my experience, people are judged by their performance rather than race.”
The Corps values cultural diversity, where skin color and appearance may be different, but the value of each Marine exceeds tangible traits.
“The beauty of the Marine Corps is we don't discriminate, and everyone is afforded the same opportunities,” said Tan. “The diversity that is in the Corps is what gives us strength.”