By Jocelyn Chui
Northwest Asian Weekly
Weldon Lee did not grow up like other American-born Asian kids of his generation. While many of his peers ended up working in their family business in the Asian community, Lee chose to embark on a journey as an enlisted soldier in the U.S. Army.
Forty years later, Lee, 65, who is a retired Army major, was awarded the Silver Patrick Henry medallion last month on June 13 by the veteran service organization Military Officers of the World Wars (MOWW). The award recognizes people who have made significant contributions to their communities that relate to patriotism.
Lee said it was a great honor to receive the award but emphasized that there is more to it than just overcoming stigma and achieving public recognition.
“There is an old saying that ‘Whoever does good for you, you must return the favor.’ The military has been so good to me, and I’m returning the favor,” Lee said.
As a retired major, Lee is actively involved in veteran service organizations. He is an officer of the American Legion, a life member of MOWW, and the project founder of Veterans Determination of Eligibility.
Lee has dedicated his time and effort to inform veterans and surviving spouses, who may not have known otherwise, about the veteran benefits they may be eligible for. His goal is to assist former active-duty World War II, Korean, and Vietnam veterans and their surviving spouses to complete the necessary documentation for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs to determine their eligibility to receive a pension, compensation, or aid and attendance (a program that provides assisted care).
Lee has also helped to organize and sponsor the first Mill Creek Veterans Memorial Day Massing of the Colors Parade in 2009 — an event aimed at promoting patriotism among young people.
One of the many projects that Lee is working on involves helping a veteran who was one of 11 Nisei soldiers in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II. The veteran was awarded the Croix de Guerre from the French government in the 1940s. Lee said the honor is equivalent to the Distinguished Service Cross — the second highest award in the United States military for heroism in combat. Lee found out, when he was helping him fill out the paperwork for veteran benefits, that this veteran never received the actual medal.
Lee was born in Baker, Ore., to Chinese parents who came to the United States in the 1940s. The family later moved to Seattle where they owned two restaurants in Roosevelt district. Growing up in Seattle, Lee saw many immigrants ridiculed because of their limited English.
“I swore to myself that I will work in an environment where communicating in English will no longer be a problem for me.”
Like many other Chinese parents at the time, Lee’s parent wanted him to be a restaurateur, or attend school to become a professional — a doctor perhaps. But Lee saw something different for himself.
“I knew there was a life much bigger than just of the business. I wanted to expand my horizon,” Lee said.
At the age of 20, Lee joined the military, after attending the University of Washington and Seattle Pacific College (now known as Seattle Pacific University) for a year each.
“I hated school … but I was able to accomplish academically [in the military],” Lee said. “The military gave me structure and a path to being self-sufficient.”
Lee started at the bottom but was able to work his way up the hierarchy of the military system. After seven years as an enlisted soldier, Lee went to officer candidate school and became a commissioned officer. He completed several other advanced training courses and earned various diplomas.
“If I want the military career, I want to learn both [support and fighting],” Lee said.
The military took Lee all over the country and gave him opportunities to meet friends from all walks of life.
Dave Graham, who now lives in North Carolina, met Lee on a train they both took from Maryland to Washington, D.C., about 20 years ago.
“[He’s a] great and hard-working guy. He cares about people and is very demanding of himself, which is a good quality,” Graham said on the phone, referring to himself as Lee’s longtime buddy.
John Carter, who now lives in New Mexico, met Lee in Texas, and they have worked together in several places.
“He is personable, always had his nose on the ground trying to sharpen it up,” Carter said in a phone interview.
While Carter and his family were living in Virginia, Lee took Carter’s son Bob into D.C. and showed him how to work the Metro in the District of Columbia.
“I was born and raised a Texan — [but] my kids called him Uncle Weldon,” Carter said. “He is a part of the family.”
Lee said one of his proudest accomplishments was being involved in policy-making at the Pentagon, where the highest level decision-making at the Department of Defense takes place.
However, throughout his 33-year military career, Lee has not encountered many Asian Americans at the senior leadership level. The military is not a prominent career choice among Chinese Americans.
“I have met two Chinese generals and several Japanese generals,” Lee said. “In the 1930s to 1950s, Chinese at the time did not join anything high profile that would put them and their family in danger or at risk.”
Lee pointed out that it is important for the Asian American community to understand the concept of military service and not take the country’s liberty and freedom for granted.
“Would their effort be as successful if they had gone somewhere else? It is only in this country you can come in and demand your rights,” he said. “[The military] is what gave us our freedom, provided us the platform to live without fear.” ♦
Jocelyn Chui can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.