By Airman 1st Class William Tracy
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — May is Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, set aside to highlight those whose origins constitute this geographical area, and the benefits they bring to the U.S.
There are more than 100,000 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders serving throughout the Department of Defense, their native countries ranging from Guam to Japan, China and Indonesia.
“Mission accomplishment relies on the diversity of our fighting force, and Asian American Pacific Islanders are part of that force,” said Edward Vaughn, director of the 50th Space Wing Equal Opportunity office. “Their service is part of what allows us to be here today.”
The military’s history is dotted with exceptional service members of Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage, from retired U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, who received a Medal of Honor for his distinguished service during World War II, to Ellison Onizuka, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and the first Asian American to reach space, who tragically passed away in the Challenger space shuttle disaster.
Here at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, two Airmen, Staff Sgt. Heeyeun Joo, contract administrator with the 50th Contracting Squadron, and Staff Sgt. Alyssa Flores, Bioenvironmental Engineering Technician with the 21st Medical Squadron, shared their experience growing up in another culture and incorporating it into their service.
Joo, who moved from South Korea to the U.S. when she was a child, explained she was unsure where her path in the U.S. was going to lead her. Eventually, she followed a friend’s advice and decided to join the Air Force.
“I decided to join the Air Force because I didn’t have any clear idea of what I aspired to do,” Joo said. “My decision was influenced by my need for purpose and will to make a change.”
Joo said joining the service was a culture shock, but in a positive way. She was introduced to a variety of cultures aside from her own, realizing the Air Force’s scope of diversity.
Additionally, she found ways to blend elements of South Korean culture and discovered how it could benefit her service.
“The main thing I found I could blend from my South Korean heritage to my service is respect for elders,” she said. “There is a distinct hierarchy and respect for older people in my culture, and it is very similar to the rank structure in the Air Force. It felt natural to me to respect those with seniority in the service.”
Growing up in the Philippines, Flores moved to the U.S when she was 18 on her father’s recommendation to seek better opportunities in life.
“My father was a chef here in the states, and he explained the better opportunities the U.S. had and petitioned for my family to immigrate here,” she said.
Intent on pursuing an education, Flores enlisted in the Air Force, and thanks to forms N-400 and N-426 under the Immigration and Nationality Act, she was streamlined in the citizenship process and became a U.S. citizen in 2012 while on active duty.
“When I became a U.S. citizen, I felt really proud of myself,” Flores said. “Many Filipinos strive to gain a citizenship, thanks to the Air Force, I was able to promptly.”
Joo and Flores’ stories are an example of the journey and dedication of the hundreds of thousands of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who have established themselves in the U.S.
According to the United States Census Bureau, there are 21.4 million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders residing within the U.S., with more than 2 percent military veterans. In 1978, a joint congressional resolution established Asian and Pacific American Heritage Week. This was extended to a month-long observance by Congress in 1992.
Joo and Flores shared their pride serving as Asian Americans in the Air Force, and expressed how diversity provides a valuable contribution to the military and the country as a whole.
“Diversity is imperative in an organization like the Air Force, the various backgrounds and cultures we come from strengthen us all,” Joo said. “They enable us to use our differences to become a more united profession, embracing change and using it to our advantage.”
“Our service is a worldwide collaboration,” Flores added. “Diversity strengthens our relationships, and understanding, not only with Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, but Airmen as a whole.”
Vaughn said Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are a major component of diversity’s strength.
“Every culture has its own story to tell, including those from Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders,” Vaughn said.