“I can’t be who I can’t see.”
Maj. Gen. William Seely III, a Vietnamese native who later became the senior ranking Asian-American in the U.S. Marines, remembers being the only Asian-American growing up in southern California in the 1970s.
“The notion you’re a little bit different, look a little different, have to work a little harder, always stayed with me,” he said.
Seely spoke as part of a national NAVAIR Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month event May 27, where he shared his story of becoming a leader in public service. For Seely, the event’s theme of “Advancing Leaders Through Purpose-Driven Service” was personal.
“This universal theme calls for us as leaders to foster a mission-purpose culture with inclusion, openness and a people-first mentality,” he said. “Our Asian-American Pacific Islander community recognizes this would be a net positive for all society.”
Seely’s life of service began as a child in the Cub Scouts, where he learned to help others. He moved on to joining the ROTC at American University as a starting point to his more than 30-year military career. He now serves as commandant of the Joint Forces Staff College at National Defense University.
“There are those who contribute, and there are those who commit,” he said. “I had to constantly commit to get to the level I wanted to be at.”
Inspired by his single working mother who bought and improved a small grocery store on her own, and his father-in-law, who was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, Seely said he was determined to commit himself to a life of service.
He also imparted the three most important things that have shaped his life and career as a leader: family, faith and friends.
“The power of we is stronger than the power of me. No one is here by themselves,” he said. “It’s one thing to be diverse, but the more important part is the inclusion. It’s one thing to sit at the table, but it’s another to be heard. I can be what I can see.”
All good leaders, he said, listen to others, learn from others, help others, then turn around and lead others.
“We have to leave the organization better than how we found out,” he said. “It’s part of our commitment to each other and to the institution.”
During the month of May, the Department of Defense pays tribute to the generations of Asian-American and Pacific Islanders who have enriched U.S. history.
“Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders have shaped our culture and influenced our life in countless ways,” said Wan Waddell, site lead for the Patuxent River NAVAIR Asian-American Pacific Islander Diversity Action Team, which hosted the event.
May was selected as the observance month to commemorate the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to the U.S. on May 10, 1843. The date also marks the anniversary of the transcontinental railroad completion on May 10, 1869. Between 1865-1869, 12,000 Chinese immigrants constructed the western section of the transcontinental railroad — one of the greatest engineering feats in American history.