332nd AEW Commemorates Pacific Islander & Asian American contributions to the Air Force

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Jefferson Thompson
  • 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing

Because the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing finds its roots in the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, a segregated African-American unit who earned distinction during WWII, diversity and inclusion take on special significance here. 

Stretching back more than 70 years, this wing met the enemy over the skies of Europe while also fighting for equal treatment as service members. Their struggle helped hasten the integration of the armed forces and subsequently saw the civil rights era come to fruition in the United States.

Today that legacy continues and the 332nd looks to showcase the contributions of Asians and Pacific Islanders to the Air Force. In 1977, the month of May was designated Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPI).

That group comprises 56 distinct ethnic groups who speak over 100 languages and have served their country since WWII and before. In 1902, Pvt. Jose B. Nisperos, born in the Philippine Islands, earned the Medal of Honor and since then more than 30 other AAPI service members have earned the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Armed Forces for exceptional valor and selflessness.

Today, Capt. Kevin Ueunten, an F-15E Weapon Systems Officer with the 494th Fighter Squadron deployed to the 332nd AEW reflects on what drew him to serve his country.

“I’m a fourth-generation Japanese Okinawan American, I grew up in Hawaii my whole life prior to attending the U.S. Air Force Academy,” he said. “My dad was in the Hawaii Air National Guard and he inspired me to follow in his footsteps and join the Air Force.”

He relates that seeing the camaraderie his dad shared with his fellow Airmen while deployed or TDY left a lasting impression. Something he shares today wearing the uniform and serving overseas.

His family has a tradition of military service overseas dating back to World War II.

“I have a family history of military service on both my mom’s and dad’s side of the family,” he said. “I’ve had uncles who were in WWII, my grandpa and his brothers served in Korea, and my family’s military history continues through my dad’s time in the Air Force.”

He said two of his uncles crossed paths during the Korean War.  Their meeting occurred when one brother was leaving the front line, while the other brother was headed toward it.

As a Japanese-American, the history of military service from interned people of Japanese ancestry is not lost on him. “Although people of Japanese Ancestry were sent to internment camps by the U.S. Government, some choose to volunteer for military assignments during WWII and served honorably in highly decorated units like the 442nd Regimental Combat Team,” he said. “It’s inspiring that they joined the military despite the hardship they experienced. Their service proved to others that they were Americans and still willing to fight for their country.”

Throughout the month a committee has planned a number of events to commemorate AAPI heritage including a keynote speech by Dr. Ravi Chaudhary, who served as a member of President Obama’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and is a former U.S. Air Force officer.

Master Sgt. Lizette Tagabon, who hails from the island of Oahu, is the chairperson for the committee.

“We have to embrace our culture,” she says, saying that several events will help do that including karaoke, trivia night and a Luau with regional cuisine.