Fort Belvoir, Virginia –
The McNamara Headquarters Complex Equal Employment Opportunity offices and tenant organization leaders, including Defense Logistics Agency Chief of Staff Kristin French, welcomed Army Maj. Gen. Garrett Yee as guest speaker for the May 15 Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month observance.
Yee is the military deputy for the Army’s chief information officer at the Pentagon and assists in the development of strategy, policy and guidance for the Army's efforts to modernize and secure its information technology network.
Yee recently discovered through genealogical research that he is part Korean, Chinese and Japanese.
“The message to me was there’s a lot more we have in common biologically than we ever realized,” he said, adding that there’s more to his ancestral makeup than his Asian heritage.
The general recalled looking at his parents’ black and white photographs from a time some might call “the good old days.”
“Maybe things were simpler then, maybe less complicated, but I don’t know that it was better,” he said, noting that there was a lack of diversity, inclusion of thought and recognition of Asian-American contributions then.
Yee said both his grandmothers, though born in the United States, lost their citizenship when they married Asian men due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was not repealed until 1943.
“Our U.S. history is full of discriminatory laws as we tried to build this nation,” he said. “Over time, the U.S. worked to improve and now you have a two-star general standing before you who wouldn’t have been able to do this 40 or 50 years ago — so we are making progress.”
During World War II, 120,000 Japanese-Americans were interned in concentration camps. Some of Yee’s ancestors were among them.
“In my mom’s lifetime that happened,” he said. “Not necessarily ‘the good old days.’”
Yee referred to that era as one that segregated minorities who wished to serve in the military, particularly African-Americans and Japanese-Americans. Those who were in internment camps were allowed to volunteer to fight, so Yee’s great-uncle served as part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and earned a Purple Heart.
“At the same time, members of his family were behind barbed wire in these internment camps across the western states,” he said. “I mention that because military service can change the trajectory of a person’s life. He inspired his nephews to serve.”
Despite the treatment some of his family members endured, Yee said his father, six uncles and great-aunt served in the military.
“They were just as American as anyone else and they had something to prove. If not for them, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” he said. “If not for the success of the 442nd, we wouldn’t have a General [Eric] Shinseki become the Chief of Staff of the Army.”
Yee said current trends indicate Asian-American parents are not encouraging their children toward public service.
“Our challenge is to change that and say, ‘Hey, there are good pathways to serve in public service and in military,’” he said.
In his generation, only Yee and a female cousin serve in the military, but he often encourages high school seniors to consider public and military service.
“I believe that the U.S. military is the most equal opportunity employer that we have. We’ve had four-star female generals, four-star African-American generals and four-star Japanese-Americans at the very top,” he said, adding that the U.S. has the best military forces in the world. “We’re fortunate that we’re all part of the same team.”