Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

Like most FSOs, I am a busy man. And like most of us, though I love my work, it stresses me out. And as someone who fights for justice, I am often upset by the many acts of injustice I witness. In short, I rarely take time to take stock of my blessings, being more preoccupied with stresses and frustrations and annoyances.

There are many reasons why Americans of all faiths and backgrounds celebrate Thanksgiving. An excuse to feast. An opportunity to get together with family members, some of whom might only be seen on the holidays. A day off from work. And the feeling that they are part of something that is happening on that day in nearly every house all over America.

Celebrating Thanksgiving is as much a celebration of being American as is celebrating the 4th of July.

It is the true embodiment of the first amendment to the American Constitution, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." In other words, America is a secular nation that encourages the free expression of religion. And Thanksgiving is a holiday that is both completely secular, something generally celebrated at home rather than church, and yet inherently spiritual, a tangible and participatory expression of core values of every major religion.

I celebrated with my wife's family, most of whom either emigrated to America themselves, or represent the first generation of their lineage to be born here. In addition to a very traditional preparation of turkey with all the trimmings and a home-made apple pie, there was also goat stew, salted cod, rice-and-peas and a really delicious flan.

And this is American too. To be able to know where your ancestors came from and celebrate one's heritage, while at the same time being and feeling completely American.

The other day I met a man from Vietnam, who had been a translator for the U.S. Marine Corps. When Saigon fell, the Marines airlifted him out, and gave him a job as a janitor on a Marine base until his situation was legalised. Once his situation became legal, he founded a small cleaning company that grew into a larger one, that grew into a service corporation doing everything from cleaning to catering. Then he bought restaurants and office buildings, and became a very wealthy man. He is currently using part of his fortune to create and fund a program to help people affected by Agent Orange, both American war veterans and Vietnamese. He is funding therapy centers for affected veterans in several American cities, as well as in Vietnam.

Like most immigrants, he is very much aware of the tremendous debt he owes this country, and now that he is able to give back, he is doing so. His project benefits more than veterans. It is actually bringing the US and Vietnam closer together; something that advances our national interest.

Thinking about his story reinforced my frustration with a DS leadership that continues to consider members of minority religions, ethnic groups, or orientation less likely to be loyal to America than everyone else.

America gave my parents a refuge when other countries refused to let them in. And despite the controversies involved, America continues to provide a home for tens of thousands of immigrants every year. And most of them are more loyal, not less, to the country that gave them refuge from whatever they left behind.

Today I played checkers and cards with family members, caught up with their news, and relaxed in a way I rarely do. And I thanked God for my own blessings: a job I love, good and supportive friends, a beautiful and loving family, and the opportunity to serve my fellow FSOs and help them in their individual and collective battles for justice.

It was a cleansing and wonderful day.

I hope that all our readers, on both sides of CFSO's issues, had a similarly relaxing holiday, and took the time to step back from their stresses and frustrations, and just be thankful.

All of us, no matter what our problems and frustrations, have a great deal to be thankful for.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Veterans Day, 2009

In case you missed it in the Wednesday, April 15, 2009, Japan Times:

The end of the long march
Special to The Japan Times

CARLSBAD, Calif. — Sixty-seven years ago this month, on April 9, 1942, I was surrendered to the Japanese Imperial Army on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines. At my first prison camp, the Japanese commandant turned to the American prisoners of war (POWs) and told us that we were "lower than dogs" and "they (the Japanese) would treat us that way for the rest of our lives." Then he said, "We will never be friends with the piggish Americans.

For a long time I thought he was right. But we have both changed. This year, I welcomed the Japanese government's first official apology to the American POWs, 63 years after our liberation.

If my fellow soldiers or I had known the consequences of being a POW of the Japanese, we would have fought to the death. After three long months of jungle fighting against a better-equipped invasion force, the American and Filipino troops were starving, sick, exhausted and out of ammunition.

At surrender, we were immediately forced to march 105 km through the steaming Bataan Peninsula without food, water, medical treatment or rest. Today, the Bataan Death March is remembered as one of the worst war crimes of World War II.

I will never forget my buddies who were shot simply for trying to get a drink of water; crushed by a tank for stumbling; bayoneted just because they could not take another step; or forced at gun point to bury alive the sick. I bear a deep scar where a Japanese officer on horseback brought his samurai sword down on my shoulder.

Those who survived the Death March faced over three years of unimaginably brutal imprisonment. Many, like me, were herded into "Hell Ships," packed shoulder to shoulder without food or sanitation and shipped to factories, mines and docks across the Japanese Empire. The survivors were literally sold to private Japanese companies to work sustaining wartime production.

I dug coal in a dangerous Mitsui Corporation-owned mine. Like all POWs, I was overworked, beaten, humiliated and starved. The damage and suffering we endured from these companies' employees were comparable to, and sometimes worse than, that inflicted upon us by the Imperial Japanese military. Among World War II combat veterans and former POWs, those who were prisoners of the Japanese have the highest percentage of post-traumatic stress disorders. To say the least, we POWs had and still have intense feelings about Japan.

Yet the Japanese commandant who belittled his American captives was wrong. The United States and Japan have become friends and close allies — a result we welcome. My anger has been tempered by the many Japanese people who have welcomed me to Japan. Personal friendships and common goals heal many wounds.

Our unfortunate history came largely to closure in a personal meeting with the Japanese ambassador to the U.S. and his wife last November. I was finally able to tell a Japanese official my story. He heard of my humiliations, saw my scars and learned of my Japanese friends who have helped me overcome my POW trauma.

I asked for the ambassador's help in requesting three things from his government so that justice is achieved for POWs: (1) an official apology; (2) an appeal to companies to apologize for their wartime use of POWs; and (3) a reconciliation project.

In December, the ambassador wrote me with news for which I have waited decades. His letter said that Japan's government extends "a heartfelt apology for our country having caused tremendous damage and suffering to many people, including those who have undergone tragic experiences in the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor Island in the Philippines."

This acknowledging gesture was followed in February by a Cabinet-approved statement to a member of the Diet that extended the apology to all "former POWs." It is the first official apology specifically to mention POWs or any particular group hurt by Imperial Japan.

We POWs accept these long-sought apologies and now ask Japan to state them for all to hear and understand. I trust that my two other requests will be fulfilled soon. It has taken nearly seven decades, but Japan's recognition of its mistreatment of POWs attains historic justice and brings fullness to the U.S.-Japan relationship. A future of a peaceful alliance is what we really wanted in the first place.

Dr. Lester Tenney is a professor emeritus of business administration from Arizona State University and commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor. He is a survivor of the Bataan Death March and slave labor in a Mitsui coal mine.