Every Memorial Day, I flash back to this moment in 1995. I was a senior at Alliance High, placing a wreath at the local veteran’s memorial, while being escorted by my then 72-year old grandfather, Grandpa Sam, dressed in his World War II military uniform. It feels especially fitting that the last day of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month lands on Memorial Day, as the memory of this incredible man represents the very best of both occasions.
In 1941, months after Grandpa Sam graduated from Alliance High, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. He was a 19-year old Japanese-American, living in small-town Nebraska, and felt compelled to enlist in the United States Army to prove his allegiance to America. He joined the 442 Regimental Combat Team, a unit comprised of Japanese- Americans, that would go on to become one of the most decorated units in U.S. military history. Grandpa Sam returned to America as a decorated war hero with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
Growing up, the 442's “Go For Broke” symbol was a permanent fixture in daily life; I can fondly recall Grandpa proudly displaying the motto on coffee mugs, shirts, belts, ties, and hats. Today, I keep the icon ever present as it reminds me of not only the sacrifices that he and countless others made, but also the lessons from his post-war life that serve as a guiding north star.
Three Life Lessons from Grandpa Sam:
- Connection. The running joke was that Grandpa Sam could walk into a restaurant knowing no one and would walk out with a full belly and a few new friends. His learner mindset, fueled by observation and inquiry, made him a master at human connection. When we slow down to observe and embrace a genuine sense of curiosity, a foundation of authentic connection is a natural progression.
- Community. Grandpa Sam was a civic leader involved in nearly every organization available in a small community. Connection at the individual level, combined with a sense of duty to others, was a clear priority that demonstrated the power of commitment and obligation beyond self. We’re at our very best when we come together to collectively increase positive impact for the greater good.
- Courage. Grandpa Sam’s courage in World War II speaks for itself, but I’ve also learned to appreciate how his engine of courage was fueled by authentic connections built upon community service. We often exhibit our greatest forms of courage in vulnerable, selfless acts to improve humanity. Those moments unleash a ripple effect of positivity that encourages others to take a courageous step outside of the comfort zone. What begins as a small splash of connection eventually yields a tidal wave of community-driven acts of courage for the benefit of all.
As division threatens to erode the fabric of society, the playbook for a better tomorrow is rooted in the virtuous circle of connection, community, and courage. Our greatest potential reveals itself in the relationships that we establish, the communities that we support, and the courage that we exhibit throughout life’s journey.
Today, and every day, I’m grateful for Grandpa Sam, my Japanese-American Grandfather, and pay tribute to his masterful life that continues to inspire the very best in humanity.