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A retired major general takes on a new mission: making sure World War II vets get their due

Antonio Taguba has lobbied to award a Congressional Gold Medal to Filipino World War II soldiers. He's helping a similar bill for Chinese-American vets.

This Memorial Day weekend, as Americans ring in the unofficial start of summer with pool parties, barbeques and trips to the beach, retired Maj. Gen. Antonio Mario Taguba will be spending time in reflection.

“Memorial Day is about serving your country every day, in whatever position, whatever sector,” said the two-star general, who retired from the U.S. Army in 2007.

Army Major Gen. Antonio M. Taguba testifies to the Senate Armed Services committee on May 11, 2004.Chuck Kennedy / MCT via Getty Images

Born in the Philippines, the 67-year-old served the United States in a military career that spanned more than three decades, taking him across the world on a variety of assignments, from South Korea to Germany to Kuwait.

One of those included being ordered to investigate and prepare a report, released in 2004, on the abuse of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.

But more recently, Taguba, now a civilian, has served in other ways.

After retiring, he said he became more involved in helping Filipino World War II vets get the monetary benefits to which they’re entitled.

I think it’s very important for our younger generation, whether it’s millennials or Generation Y, that they not forget to look back and ask the question, how did I come about being here.

Taguba also successfully helped lobby Congress to award a Congressional Gold Medal to memorialize the service and sacrifice of the more than 260,000 Filipino and Filipino-American soldiers who served during World War II.

Those efforts culminated in an emotional ceremony in October at Emancipation Hall in Washington, D.C., attended by surviving vets, their loved ones, and family members of vets who had already passed on.

“We wanted to achieve a small victory for the 90- and 100-year-old veterans who had waited and had almost given up not getting recognized — a ‘thank you’ from our country,” said Taguba, who’s now involved in a similar campaign for Chinese-American World War II veterans.

His father, Tomas, was among those eligible for Congressional Gold Medal recognition this past fall, Taguba said. He was a Philippine Scout who fought for the U.S. in World War II and survived the infamous 1942 Bataan Death March, which claimed the lives of thousands of Filipinos.

“He would always ask, when do you think I’ll get that medal,” Taguba recalled.

But Tomas Taguba, who had retired from the Army as a sergeant first-class, never saw that day. He died in 2011, a month short of his 93rd birthday. His wife, Maria, passed away in 2008.

“I was hoping my parents could’ve been there,” Taguba said.

That Taguba, one of seven children, ended up becoming a soldier was not preordained. After moving with his mom and three siblings to Hawaii at the age of 11, Taguba served as an altar boy in a Roman Catholic church and considered becoming a priest, he said.

Taguba’s mother, a religious woman, was very happy. But his father had a differing view.

“My dad convinced me that I should not be a priest because he was in the Army,” Taguba said with a laugh.

Taguba, who became a U.S. citizen in 1962, joined the Junior ROTC in high school, did one year at a private Catholic university in Hawaii, and then transferred to Idaho State University to complete a bachelor’s degree in history, he said.

Taguba said he liked the discipline, organization, structure, teamwork and comradeship of the Army.

He also joined the Army ROTC in college, receiving a commission as a second lieutenant following his graduation.

Going to school in predominantly white Idaho had its challenges, Taguba said, particularly in how others perceived him.

“I was always looked at as a foreign exchange student,” Taguba said.

He recalled one incident when he had asked a young woman out on a date.

“She was crying,” Taguba said. “She told me that she could not go out with me because her parents forbid her from dating black people.”

I would hear under their breath, they would call me ‘slope,’ ‘slant eye,’ ‘VC,’ which is short for Viet Cong, that I was too small, didn’t measure up to be an Army officer. So I heard it all, but I reminded them that I was still their platoon leader.

After graduating in 1972, just a few years before the end of the Vietnam War, Taguba said he also encountered prejudice in the military, which he described as being “more insidious.”

“I would hear under their breath, they would call me ‘slope,’ ‘slant eye,’ ‘VC,’ which is short for Viet Cong, that I was too small, didn’t measure up to be an Army officer,” he said. “So I heard it all, but I reminded them that I was still their platoon leader.”

Over the next few decades, Taguba rose up through the ranks, completing three master’s degrees along the way. He met his wife, Debbie, and had two kids. One of them, his son Sean, is now a major in the Army.

All the moving around from place to place during active duty took a toll on his family, Taguba said.

A Congressional Gold Medal granted to the Filipino veterans of World War II on Oct. 25, 2017.Chris Fuchs / NBC News

Both his children ended up going to three different high schools. They were rebellious about having to move and making new friends, according to Taguba.

“But in the end, both graduated from college, both had scholarships, both had jobs after, and both are raising a family,” Taguba said. “So every parent’s dream happened to me and my wife.”

In civilian life, Taguba has not slowed down.

In addition to his work with The Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project, Taguba also serves as chairman of the board of directors for Pan-Pacific American Leaders and Mentors. The all-volunteer nonprofit promotes the advancement of Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders, both military and civilian.

Taguba is also providing his expertise to the Chinese American WWII Veterans Recognition Project. The project aims to celebrate the unrecognized Chinese-American servicemen and women who volunteered or were drafted in World War II when the Chinese Exclusion Act was still in place.

House and Senate bills to honor these Chinese-American vets with a Congressional Gold Medal are pending in Congress.

Project director E. Samantha Cheng said that had it not been for Taguba, whom she’s known for six years, she would’ve never gotten involved.

“He has been such an advocate for us,” Cheng said.

With each passing day, fewer and fewer members remain of what’s been called the Greatest Generation, a term for those born between 1911 and 1924, including the men and women who served in World War II.

“I think it’s very important for our younger generation, whether it’s millennials or Generation Y, that they not forget to look back and ask the question, 'how did I come about being here,'” Taguba said.

And with Memorial Day approaching, Taguba emphasized that “we need to serve our country.”

“It doesn’t have to be in uniform, you can serve in your community,” he said. “And that’s what American citizenship is all about.”

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