Remarks by Captain Courtney Sugai
U.S. Army
May 31, 2005.

It is an honor to be here at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial to pay my respects to the veterans of past and present wars. It is an honor to be in the presence of brave men and women who have fought for our country and our way of life.

I grew up on the island of Kaua‘i in a close knit family. My family was what we in Hawaii call a "mixed-plate," with ancestral ties to Ancient Hawaii, China, England, Germany, and the mid-western United States. As a child, I learned early on that I was the product of generations of migrants who had come from all over the world. How do you define such a variety of backgrounds coming together? Our pot pourri of culture could be summed up in one word, "American."

I never really thought about it as a child or even as a young adult. I had loving parents and grandparents, I lived on a beautiful island where everyone in the community was like family. I was free, and I was safe. I never thought that what I had was anything special, and I never feared that it could be taken away. I took it for granted.
For my whole life, I was told that I was lucky to be an American and to live in a free country. I was told that freedom wasn’t free, and that my grandfathers on both sides had fought in World War II and my father in Vietnam. All to give me a good life. To give me a good life, I thought? To give me freedom? These ideas were abstract, and I never came to understand them until years later.

My father believed that everyone should serve. Whether it was military service, the Peace Corps, or public service, somehow, you would give something back. My father also told me that women from Kaua‘i were known for being tough and had been strong warriors in the days of ancient Hawai‘i. So, as a freshman in college, I asked myself, how was I going to give serve. I enrolled in Army ROTC. Although my husband, brother, father, and grandfathers had all been in the military, I did not grow up in a military atmosphere. I did not watch war movies, and I was not interested in reading about them. At the time, I made a living dancing the hula on a dinner cruise for tourists. The military life was not something that came naturally. How in the world was I going to be an officer? I never really planned on staying in ROTC. I was going to try it, I probably wouldn’t like it, and I would most likely drop out after one semester.

Then, I met a woman named Major Kathy Schlimm. MAJ Schlimm had all the qualities of a true leader. She was tough, smart, and dedicated to her cadets and the Army. She managed to balance her professional life as a soldier with marriage and motherhood. She was like a mother to her cadets, the kind of mother that teaches you right from wrong, picks you up when you fall, and beams with pride when you succeed. She dedicated herself to the profession of arms and to training the future leaders of the Army. She didn’t do it for the money. And, she did not do it for recognition. She did it because she loved soldiers and she loved her country.

So, when the opportunity to drop out of ROTC came, I did not. I stayed in, got knee deep in Army training. I was afraid that I would not amount to much as a soldier. But, I had to try my best. There were so many opportunities out there for me, opportunities that were not there for my mother and grandmothers. The women who served in Vietnam were so much braver than I was. The decision to join the Army and go to Vietnam were choices that women of that era did not have to make. When it would have been completely acceptable to stay home where it was safe, they chose to do something that was larger than themselves, and go to war. Women were fighting for rights at home in America, and yet these courageous women, took an extra step, and went to Vietnam. The men and women who went to Vietnam fulfilled an obligation to serve our country to advance the cause of freedom. Yet, so much of what they did was unappreciated, and so many of them were condemned by fellow Americans.

So, why did they go to war? The reasons for going to war are not easily defined. If I were asked why I went to war, I would answer: I chose the profession of arms because I love my country. The decision to go to war was made. I am a soldier, and I will willingly do my duty. I don’t mean to imply that my response was robotic. I want to believe that I went for the right reasons. And now that I have served in Afghanistan and Iraq, I know that I helped advance the cause of freedom. I saw people there who were so desperate to have just a little piece of what we have. Men would stand in line for days at the front gate of our base camp, just for the chance to earn four dollars, a meal, and a bottle of clean water for a full days work. The majority of the people I met were seeking what I always thought of as the simple things in life. Now, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan have the right to vote, the right to pursue an education, and freedom to practice their religion.

The soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan sacrificed their lives to give others freedom. These brave soldiers come from all branches of the military and perform various duties. Brave soldiers, like my cousin, Infantry Platoon Leader, First Lieutenant Nainoa Hoe, and my friends, Maintenance Officer, Captain Pierre Piche, blackhawk pilot Second Lieutenant Jeremy Wolfe, and the Sergeant First Class Kelly Bolor, our Laundry and Bath Platoon Sergeant. Now, my husband and I are both home from the war, and my brother and brother-in-law are serving in the Middle East. When I think of all them, the soldiers who have died, and those who continue the fight, I am comforted to know that the people of Afghanistan and Iraq are beginning to taste the fruits of freedom.

So, when I think back to my childhood, and my parents telling me that my freedom did not come without sacrifice, I can truly say that I understand. I am so grateful to all who have served so that I can be free, and I hope that by serving in the Army, I can someday be worthy of their sacrifice.

Captain Courtney Sugai, U.S. Army