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The faces of Veterans Day

Irish-Americans and Filipino Americans; African-Americans and Latino Americans: Serving our country in harm's way reinforces how much we are all the same.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

Irish-Americans and Filipino Americans; African-Americans and Latino Americans: Serving our country in harm's way reinforces how much we are all the same.

On Nov. 4, one week before Veterans Day, the small group of living Medal of Honor recipients lost one. Washington’s John “Bud” Hawk passed away at 89. In World War II, the injured sergeant ran in front of German tanks in order to direct his forces’ firepower. It resulted in the surrender of 500 Germans.

Colonel Jack Jacobs, one of the 78 living recipients of the Medal of Honor, says, “Nothing amazes. This is the United States--people have historically put their lives in danger to defend an idea--freedom.” That holds true whether people have been in America for generations or for a month. One group stands out to Jacobs—the Irish Brigade, or “Fighting Irish” during the Civil War. It was made up of new Irish immigrants, some who’d been on our soil only for weeks. Their bravery in the face of catastrophic losses, up to half of their numbers at Fredericksburg, is legendary. In the battle of Gettysburg, the priest gave the entire brigade their last rites. They didn’t flinch.

But America did.

The new Irish Americans of that time were discriminated against on many fronts.  Their religion was foreign;  the Protestant culture rejected these Roman Catholics.  They were ethnically ridiculed; slurs like “paddy” and “mick” were commonly used. And class snobbery haunted them for centuries. They were the underclass; a majority were “indentured servants.” Slaves, by any modern value set.

That didn’t weaken these new American patriots.  The oldest act of bravery resulting in a Medal of Honor belongs to Bernard Irwin, born in Ireland.  More than 250 like him followed, according to “Medal of Honor Recipients 1863-1994.” In fact, of the 3,463 recipients to date, it’s been estimated that more than 2,000 are of Irish descent.

The Irish narrative has sequels. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which used the “go for broke” gambling term, was all Japanese-American, and also the most decorated unit in U.S. history.  The First and Second Filipino American infantry regiments were highly decorated, also from the Second World War.  A partial breakdown of Medal of Honor recipients to date completes the picture:  it includes 87 African-Americans, 41 Latino Americans, 33 Asian-Americans, and 32 Native Americans.

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This mix is consistent across the ranks.  In the Korean War from 1950-1953, the nearly 1.8 million who served included 600,000 African-Americans, 148,000 Latino Americans, and more than 45,000 Asian-Americans.  All said, the Veteran’s Administration estimates that almost five million living veterans today are minorities.

My uncles are included.  One was in the Army, two in the Navy, and one in the Air Force.  (The fifth, a Purple Heart recipient, passed away in 1984.)

My immigrant grandfather was proud of his sons’ military service to his new country.  He was the grandfather who hid a fork close by.  Grandma would set the table with chopsticks.  As eyes closed for grace, he’d quietly sneak the fork next to his plate.  For him, the U.S. meant a new way of living.

World War II shaped that.  For years he commuted to the Los Angeles shipyards to help build the Liberty cargo ships that delivered the lifeblood of the Allied forces.  Decades later, he’d show his 12-year-old grandson the celebratory poster he got while working there.  On the lower right corner, he put the date:  June 1943.  It declared a manufacturing milestone, “200 ships for Victory.”

They probably printed thousands of these commemorations.  He framed his, and proudly pulled it from the wall each visit, his wrinkled finger directing my curiosity to the gun turret he helped construct. It was his medal of honor.

Veterans Day reminds us of what makes America strong, from heroes like John Hawk who didn’t like being called a hero, to the valiant Irish who have been forgotten. They remind us of how serving our country in harm’s way often strips away pettiness and polarity.  And reinforces how, for all of our differences, we are the same.