CAMP MURRAY, Wash. – 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 who comes from a mixed-race family with a father from Bangladesh. “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 1 million Asian Americans in Washington, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month recognizes one of the largest groups in the state.
First recognized in June 1977 by Reps. Frank Horton and Norman Y. Mineta, a resolution proclaimed the first 10 days of May as Asian-Pacific Heritage Week. A similar bill was proposed by the Senate a month later, and President Jimmy Carter signed the joint resolution for the celebration on Oct 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 the 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 to the territorial militia being activated to serve during the Philippine Insurrection of 1899–1902. The conflict ended with the signing of the Philippine Organic Act, creating the Philippine Assembly and the modern government known in the Philippines today.
During World War II, Washington National Guard Soldiers fought the Japanese forces on Guadalcanal, the Northern Solomons and Luzon, freeing the island nations from Japanese occupation.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, many refugees from Vietnam settled in Washington state with the help of former Secretary of State Ralph Munro and the Washington National Guard. As thousands fled Vietnam, there was conflict about what to do with the refugees looking to resettle. Gov. Dan Evans and California Gov. Jerry Brown didn’t agree about welcoming in refugees. Evans sent Munro to California 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.
Washington welcomed 500 refugees in temporary housing at Camp Murray before finding more permanent homes. Nearly 4,000 more refugees followed. Many moved into the communities, and those needing more time came to Camp Murray. Today, almost 70,000 Vietnamese Americans call Washington state home.
“Those kids were the valedictorians of their high school,” said Munro during a visit to Camp Murray in August. “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 Washington National Guard members are learning about the traditions of Asian Americans is by taking part in overseas tours. For 20 years, Washington National Guard members have had the chance to visit the Kingdom of Thailand through the Department of Defense National Guard State Partnership Program.
Visits to Thailand often include cultural exchanges, celebrations and the chance to learn about the country’s history.
In 2017, the Washington National Guard and Malaysia signed an agreement, becoming Washington’s second SPP partner.
“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.”