Bookmark and Share

Washington National Guard celebrates diversity of the force during Asian American Pacific Islander Month

Diversity is a strength of the U.S. military, which brings together service members from different backgrounds and ethnicities and helps the force grow stronger.

“Observing the different cultures in the military makes us more inclusive,” said Capt. Tiffany Cadenhead, a personnel officer with the 420th Chemical Battalion in Yakima, whose father is from Bangladesh and comes from a mixed race family. “There are things I learn from people daily about their backgrounds that I would never have known. Embracing everyone’s heritage is important as a melting pot of people in the military.”

The Washington National Guard enjoys a growing diverse force of service members with unique backgrounds and experiences. With nearly one million Asian Americans in Washington, Asian American and Pacific Islander month recognizes one of the largest groups in the state’s population.

First recognized in June 1977 by U. S. Representatives Frank Horton and Norman Y. Mineta, a resolution proclaimed the first 10 days of May as Asian-Pacific Heritage Week. A similar bill would be proposed by the Senate a month later and President Jimmy Carter would sign the joint resolution for the celebration on October 5, 1978. In May 2009, President Barack Obama signed Proclamation 8369, recognizing the month of May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, communities celebrate the achievements and contributions of Asian and Pacific Americans with community festivals, government-sponsored activities and educational activities for students.

The Washington National Guard has a long history of service in Asia, dating back to the territorial militia being activated to serve during the Philippine Insurrection from 1899 – 1902. The conflict ended with the signing of the Philippine Organic Act, which provided for the creation of the Philippine Assembly and modern government known in the Philippines today.

During World War II, Washington National Guard soldiers fought the Japanese forces on Guadalcanal, Northern Solomons and Luzon, freeing the island nations from Japanese occupation.

After the Fall of Saigon in 1975, a large number of refugees from Vietnam settled in our state with the help of former Secretary of State Ralph Munro and the Washington National Guard. As thousands fleed Vietnam, there was a conflict growing among what to do with the refugees looking for resettlement. Gov. Dan Evans and then California Gov. Jerry Brown didn’t see eye to eye on welcoming in refugees. Evans sent Munro to California to meet with officials there to see how Washington could assist. Munro learned of the enormity of the issues at Camp Pendleton and offered to have groups of refugees resettle in the Evergreen state.

500 refugees came to Washington, moving onto Camp Murray in temporary housing before finding a more permanent residency. That first group was followed by two more groups and nearly 4,000 more refugees. Many moved into the communities and those needing more time came to Camp Murray. Today nearly 70,000 Vietnamese Americans call Washington state home.

“20 years later, those kids were the valedictorians of their high school," said Munro during a visit to Camp Murray in August 2021. "They excelled, they worked hard.”

Capt. Laudy Choum, a signal officer with the 898th Brigade Engineer Battalion, experienced a similar situation. Born in Cambodia during the height of the Khmer Rouge genocide, Choum’s family escaped the country and came to America.

“I wanted to give back and serve the greatest country in the world,” said Choum. “It has protected, educated and given me and my family the opportunity to become successful. The Washington Army National Guard has provided me a platform to be a positive role model and mentor for my family and friends.”

Choum, a full time employee at the Washington Army National Guard’s information management office, works daily with many Asian Americans, including Maj. Sameer Puri, who moved to America from India and Sgt. 1st Class Lance Shimamoto, who brings his “Island style” to Washington.

“Heritage appreciation is not something that I just decided to do one day,” said Shimamoto. “It is something that I do every day. This observance allows others that are not around Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders an opportunity to share and understand our traditions, beliefs, and ways of life.”

Another way that Washington National Guard members are learning about the traditions, beliefs and ways of life of Asian Americans is by taking part in overseas tours. For the last 20 years, Washington National Guard members have had the chance to visit the Kingdom of Thailand through the National Guard State Partnership Program (SPP). In 2017, Washington and the country of Malaysia signed an agreement, becoming the second country Washington works with through the SPP.

Through the SPP, the National Guard conducts military-to-military engagements in support of defense security goals but also leverages whole-of-society relationships and capabilities to facilitate broader interagency and corollary engagements spanning military, government, economic and social spheres. Visits to Thailand often include cultural exchanges, celebrations and the chance to learn about the history.

“I have always believed that our State Partnership Program is working right when you build lifelong relationships with our partners,” said. Brig. Gen. Gent Welsh, the commander of the Washington Air National Guard. “We should have our young officers connecting with our Thai and Malaysia officers when they are just starting out, and they should grow up together, learn from one another and build those lasting friendships.”