Seventy years after surviving some of the most punishing combat of World War II, Japanese American soldiers flew to Washington, D.C. to receive the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor.
On a whipping cold, wet Veterans Day morning, some of those men enjoyed warm words of appreciation much closer to home in an event hosted by the Presidio Trust and Swords for Plowshares.
Veterans from San Jose to Mill Valley gathered at a Presidio campground overlooking the Pacific and talked about their experiences. Some fought with the 100th Infantry Battalion, some the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and others in the Military Intelligence Service. Most are now in their 90s.
Longtime Peninsula resident Frank Seiyu Higashi was one of the Kibbei – born in the U.S., schooled in Japan. He returned here to serve the country of his birth, and was dispatched to Okinawa, one of a special 10-man group working in military intelligence.
The much-decorated 442nd was awarded more medals to a man than any other unit in American history. Its motto: “Go for broke.” The 100th Battalion was dubbed “the Purple Heart Battalion,” an homage to its high casualty rate. The emblem of the MIS was the sphinx. By the 1970s they finally began to talk about their experiences, often prompted by the questions of their grandchildren.
“We had been told to keep our mouths shut,” said former military linguist Ben Tada.
The recent honors fell hard on these men, most of whom had been rounded up and put in internment camps along with all Americans of Japanese ancestry.
“When Pearl Harbor came, many of the soldiers were classified 4C: undesirable, enemy aliens,” said linguist Frank Yamamoto. “Here we are, citizens of this country. Our parents are behind barbed wire with the guns pointed inward.”
Many never lived to see the segregated units honored. Some said they went to Washington as much for the comrades who didn't live to recieve the accolades.
And what stands out in their minds from the experience, so many years after the war ended? Said Yamamoto, “How brutal war is.”
Support for Veterans of Recent Conflicts
Will support come sooner to the current generation of military men and women?
The spirit was willing: As part of the event, volunteers packed lunches and hand-written messages of thanks, to be delivered to residents of the Veterans Academy, a transitional program for previously homeless veterans – a group that is growing in numbers.
Across the country, some 76,000 veterans have no place to stay on any given night, according to a Department of Housing and Urban Development report – an estimate some veteran advocates say is conservative. A new study by the nonprofit Homes Campaign shows homeless vets remain homeless longer than those who have never served in the military.
“When they leave the military, they lose their housing allowance, their benefits,” said Michael Blecker, executive director of Swords to Plowshares, which provides case management, job training and counseling for veterans. “And 40 percent of them have young children.”
The existing government transitional programs don’t come close to meeting the needs, Blecker said: “Our guys call it ‘death by power point.’”
The Senate passed two bills yesterday that will provide paybacks of up to $9,600 for hiring unemployed veterans or those with service-related disabilities.
The Obama administration also secured a commitment from community health centers to hire some 8,000 returning medics, and to train and certify them as physician assistants working in emergency care and counseling. One-quarter of vets between the ages of 18 and 24 are unemployed.
But the corporate world has balked at hiring veterans, said Swords to Plowshares director Jennifer Stauch.
“People are wary,” she said. “They hear about post traumatic stress disorder. And we talk to government agencies about making hiring vets a part of their procurement process. That includes defense contractors.”
Saumirah McWoodson has read the statistics, and looked on the Service Nation Facebook page to find an opportunity to volunteer. A former child development worker who has cared for children on army bases in Europe, McWoodson and her mother made sandwiches, packed bags and helped children make cards for veterans.
They worked alongside Congresswoman Jackie Speier.
“We know there are 100,000 homeless vets right now,” she said. “And 56 percent are African American or Latino. We need to do more.”