Memorial Day will be observed by the vast majority of Americans by lighting barbecues, hunting for bargains and maybe hoisting a flag on the lawn. But for many immigrants who took the oath as a citizen of these United States, it will be a far more solemn event as we pause to honor those who have fallen in the line of duty to protect that most precious of ideals, freedom.
Growing up in a foreign land, first generation American citizens have a unique and powerful point of comparison when observing Memorial Day. There is nothing here we take for granted. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was, for many immigrants, a distant dream that one clandestinely read about in books or in whispered conversations.
Immigrants have always played a role in defending America and its core values. It was Friedrich von Steuben, a Prussian general, who drilled the Continentals, and while everyone knows French nobleman Lafayette's contribution, few know of fellow Frenchman Louis Duportail, a military engineer who helped Washington build key fortifications. Polish nobleman Casimir Pulaski is reputed to have saved the life of Washington on the battlefield, only to lose his own life battling the British in Georgia. Yet, these are only a few examples retrieved from American history.
Entire regiments of Irishmen fought to preserve the Union during the Civil War, the Fighting 69th in New York being the most legendary; but it is estimated that 40,000 Irish immigrants put on the blue uniform to take up arms in the defense of freedom.
Later in our nation's history, countries that had been our enemies would produce proud German-Americans, Italian-Americans and Japanese-Americans enlisting in America's armed forces for the purpose of destroying those regimes that sought to turn the world into a slaughterhouse. These were men who understood the enormity of their oath of allegiance to the United States when they swore,
"I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic... so help me God."
Many of them would lose their lives upholding this oath, although they would not be alone. The U.S. Citizens Immigration Service reports that throughout our long history, some 700 immigrants have held our nation's highest military honor for bravery, the Medal of Honor.
It is no different today as a diverse and vibrant America welcomes into uniform the immigrants who are willing to defend with their lives the freedoms that are prized by so many people across the globe. A new generation of immigrant soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines has sacrificed to be here, has hungered for our freedoms and is now prepared to follow in the footsteps of other American citizen soldiers who have always stood on the front lines of liberty.
This past month the National Ethnic Coalition (NECO) hosted its annual Ellis Island Medals of Honor program and over a half dozen military personnel from proud immigrant families were honored including Medal of Honor winner Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta, who won this award saving members of his rifle platoon in Afghanistan in October of 2007.
As we observe Memorial Day 2011, we have a moral obligation to pause and pay tribute to every American, immigrant or not, who cares so deeply for our nation that they were willing to sacrifice themselves to defend it. You need not look far to find these patriots. They are our neighbors, our families, our friends and our fellow immigrants.