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Appreciating culture

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Posted: Sunday, May 30, 2010 12:00 pm | Updated: 9:20 am, Thu Aug 16, 2012.

By Amanda Kim Stairrett

Killeen Daily Herald

FORT HOOD - The area's Asian and Pacific Islander communities were recognized during a series of celebrations this month at Fort Hood.

The U.S. Army Operational Test Command and 1st Cavalry Division led observances May 20 and Thursday, respectively, in honor of Asian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Both events included cultural and dance presentations, food sampling and talks from local residents of Pacific Islander descent.

Cultural contributions

Observances like this month's were important because Army formations are made of a variety of cultures, said Sgt. 1st Class George Parks, of the 1st Cavalry's Equal Opportunity office. Everything from background to beliefs can vary from culture to culture, he went on to say, and it's important to know about them.

The military has a big influence on the Asian and Pacific Islander communities in the Fort Hood area, Parks said. Many are military retirees who settled in the area with their families.

The area reminds some Asians and Pacific Islanders of home because of its atmosphere, friendliness and Southern hospitality, Helen Gomez said May 20.

She led efforts to recognize Asian and Pacific Island cultures during Operational Test Command's celebration. Gomez is a civilian employee with the directorate and co-founder of the local Pacific Heights Express Dance Organization, which performed at West Fort Hood.

Getting off the island

The 1st Cavalry's Equal Opportunity office partnered with others from Fort Hood to host an observance Thursday at Abrams Physical Fitness Center.

It began with performances by Baila Pacifica Entertainment and the Cultura Filipiniana Arts Inc.'s Phil-American Dance Troupe, and Lt. Col. (promotable) Leafaina O. Yahn spoke about American Samoa culture and her experiences leaving there to join the Army.

Yahn is from the village of Gataivai and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1989, according to information from the 1st Cavalry.

Since then, she has served across the world. Yahn deployed three times to Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division and 41st Fires Brigade. She commanded the brigade's 589th Brigade Support Battalion before taking over as the 120th Infantry Brigade, First Army Division West's deputy commander in October 2009.

She will attend the Naval War College this summer before assuming command of the 404th Army Field Support Brigade at Fort Lewis, Wash.

Yahn said she was motivated to work hard in school by her parents and the thought of staying on the island. She was desperate for an opportunity to leave.

Yahn's experiences as a leader in a diverse workplace have made her a better soldier and stronger person, she said, adding that only in America could an island girl who hardly spoke any English succeed and make her dreams come true.

Good for the people, good for military

Operational Test Command's celebration was a combination of displays; food from local Hawaiian, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Filipino restaurants; music from the Island Breeze Band; and dancing. Gomez said she didn't want just one culture represented because the Fort Hood area is so diverse.

Aloalii Sasa, a local educator and an American Samoa native, was the featured speaker.

Sasa teaches advanced placement and humanities at Shoemaker High School. He is set to teach dual-credit classes next year for Central Texas College and the Killeen Independent School District. He has served since 2002 as director for the Samoa I Texas Youth Group. He also teaches language and cultural traditions.

Sasa talked about his experiences as an American Samoan and what brought him to Central Texas. He said there are three ways islanders get to the mainland: academic scholarships, athletic scholarships and the military.

To receive academic scholarships in American Samoa, students have to be in the top 1 percent of their classes. About 1,500 students graduate every year in American Samoa and fewer than 20 academic scholarships are given, he said. The population of American Samoa is 57,291, according to the 2000 Census.

Just 60 athletic scholarships were awarded in 2007, Sasa said. Most of them were for football.

The third way American Samoans get off the island is through the military. Since the island became a U.S. territory in 1900, American Samoans have fought in all U.S. wars, Sasa said.

Eighteen have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan and those deaths were felt nationwide, Sasa said. A news organization traveled to American Samoa to find out about its people's military service. A mother who lost a son in combat was asked why she allowed another son to join. Once a warrior falls, another must step up to take their place, the crew was told.

Sasa's father joined the Army in 1981 to find a better future for his family, he said, adding he was thankful for the opportunities and blessings that life has brought him.

The military has been good for the people of the Pacific islands and the people of the Pacific islands have been good for the military, he added.

Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at astair@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7547.

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