By Cliff Wong
Our nation celebrated Memorial Day in May, a most sacred national holiday to honor those who served and died for our country. As an Asian American, it’s a blessing to be born and raised in the best nation on the planet, the United States of America. In light of some shortcomings, the positives outweigh the negatives. America has one key element that sets it apart — freedom — something often taken for granted. Our freedom is ensured by the sacrifice of millions of brave men and women over the past 239 years. The essence of our lifestyle is the result of their sacrifice.
Veterans are everywhere. They can be a neighbor, cop, teacher, shopkeeper, or bus driver. When not actively serving, they are just like anyone else, until it’s time to make the ultimate sacrifice and place their lives in harm’s way. They are heroes because we enjoy freedom while on their watch.
We of the Asian community have our own share of such champions. During the Second World War, many of our forefathers were drafted, some straight off the boat, to serve in the military. Many of these heroes are closer than one may think. In 2013, while attending service at New Community Church in Newton (part of the Boston Chinese Evangelical Church), a familiar figure approached the podium. John De Jesus, an active church volunteer, asked the congregation to pray for him and his family. He disclosed his plans for immediate deployment to Afghanistan as a Navy Reservist.
John was born in Quezon City, Philippines. At the age of six, he immigrated to the United States and embraced his adopted country. Upon graduating high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served his first six-year tour of active duty. On his return, John did what most veterans do: attend college, get married, have a family and pursue a career as a physician’s assistant. At this juncture, it appears that his life was mapped out for him.
However, in 2009, his dutiful nature compelled him to recommission into the United States Naval Reserves at the rank of lieutenant. As a reservist, he was attached to the Operational Health Support Unit. According to De Jesus, his decision came from a strong desire to do the right thing and to give back to the country that has been so good to him.
During John’s tenure of service, America has been engaged in three different conflicts: Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. As a reservist, he served stateside for much of his tenure. However, he knew that at any moment, he’d be deployed for active duty. In John’s own words, as a reservist during wartime, deployment is not a matter of if but when. When called upon to serve, he obediently packed his bags and parted with all the things that he cherished: his family, home, church and friends.
In March 2013, he began his deployment with the Forward Surgical Element in Tarin Kowt, the Uruzgan Province of Afghanistan. He served during Operation Enduring Freedom. As medical personnel, John was not on the front line but continually in harm’s way. There was always the danger of direct fire to the base along with occasional mortar attacks. The greatest danger was the potential attack from locals who worked on the base. This was termed “green on blue,” a situation where a supposedly friendly local is actually an enemy infiltrator. Subsequently, life on the military base was filled with tension and distress for members of the Coalition Forces.
Although John was not engaged in direct combat, his job was no less traumatic. One can imagine the strain of treating wounded or dying individuals on a daily basis. There were even times where John was required to treat the enemy. John often worked around the clock.
A variety of factors enabled John to get through this experience: His weekly Skype conferences with his family, his dedication to saving lives, his devotion to fellow GIs and his Christian faith. A man of faith, John admittedly used this deployment as a short term mission for God.
In December 2013, John’s deployment was completed and he was among the fortunate ones to return home. After nine harrowing months in Afghanistan, he was grateful to be home and still in one piece. He thanks God for his safe return to his family, his church and his friends. He is happy to be reunited with his wife and two children and to resume his civilian life.
In 2009, he chose to reenlist because he felt an obligation as a soldier and an American to serve. I wrote about John De Jesus because of his outstanding courage and conviction. He is what all Asian Americans should value as a role model, a good citizen, husband, parent, Christian, and, when necessary, warrior. When asked if he would do it again, his answer was an emphatic “Yes!”
A kinder, gentler, more affable person whom I’ve yet to meet, John proved to be one tough hombre when it was necessary. Throughout history, there have been millions who answered such a call to keep us safe. As we just celebrated Independence Day on July Fourth, let us reflect and continue to pay homage to all those who sacrificed to ensure our freedom and safety. Among them is John De Jesus.
This post is also available in: Chinese