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To the Philippines and back: Airman reflects on his heritage

  • Published
  • By Airman First Class Thomas T. Charlton
  • Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The first Asian American and Pacific Islander forum sponsored by the Presidential Commission was held in Washington, D.C. in December.

Col. Jimmy Canlas, 437th Airlift Wing commander, attended the open discussion about challenges being faced by current military members and veterans and the plans to resolve the issues for future generations.

“I’ve been blessed because I had mentors who picked me up and showed me the next step,” said Canlas. “I know there are a lot of people who don’t have those mentors and don’t believe those mentors exist for them, but I want to help change that. To encourage this type of mentorship early, the commissioner of the forum invited cadets from all of the military academies providing them the opportunity to speak to leaders of all ranks and positions of Asian descent.”

At the age of eight, Canlas moved from Southern California to the Philippines when his father retired from the U.S. Navy. Upon arrival, his family lived deep in a rural province, and was without running water and electricity.  His family would roll their bed mats out each night complete with mosquito nets. Canlas and his siblings immediately missed the comforts and opportunities that had been available to them stateside.

“We hated it,” said Canlas. “My siblings and I struggled acclimating to the weather, but there were other struggles as well. When we first moved to the Philippines, we did not have many things we take for granted here in the US such as air conditioning and convenience stores. We didn’t have those comforts of home. We quickly realized how lucky we were to have lived in the United States.”

Canlas comes from a long family line of military service. His grandfather served in the Philippine Army as a scout and later joined the U.S. Army to fight in World War II. While in the U.S. Army, he served as General Douglas MacArthur’s personal driver. After MacArthur’s departure, Canlas’ grandfather was captured, participate in, and eventually escaped the Bataan Death March, where prisoners walked 65 miles to Japanese prison camps. His three older siblings are also veterans.

“For me, joining the military wasn’t a question of if, but when,” said Canlas. “My grandfather served and my father also served in the Navy as a Seabee. Growing up, all I knew was this long line of military service. With my brother also joining the Air Force, I knew it was only a matter of time until I joined myself.”

After graduating high school at the age of 16, Canlas went to a local college for two years. Wanting to fly but unsure what options were best for him, he first thought of applying to the Air Force Academy. However, Canlas spoke to one of the fighter pilots from Clark Air Base who suggested he return to the U.S. and join an Air Force ROTC program. Canlas soon enrolled at the University of Texas in San Antonio, Texas.

“In some ways, I felt a little behind my peers,” said Canlas. “Not from an educational stand point, but an opportunity stand point. Because many cadets had been able to participate in programs such as Junior ROTC, they had already learned drill and ceremonies and military history, giving them a leg up on me. I told myself I wasn’t going to let these guys get the best of me. It made me work harder, to the point where I was exceeding them.”

Canlas faced adversity because of his cultural background when in college and when he first entered the Air Force. With few Asian American pilots at the time, Canlas didn’t have many role models. Something as small as his oxygen mask made Canlas stand out. The instructors had to give him an older, obsolete model because the bridge of his nose is wider than most.

“There are a lot of people out there who think because you’re Asian, you have to be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer to be considered successful,” said Canlas. “I’d like to think you don’t have to be any of those things. You can be successful as a Public Affairs officer, a photographer or someone who flies airplanes. As long as you want to do something worthwhile with your life, that’s all that matters.”

Many successful men and women, to include those who Canlas connected with through the forum in D.C. are honored every year through Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Originally a week-long celebration beginning the first week in May 1979, the observance was expanded to a month when Congress passed Public Law 102-450 in 1992.

“This story is not about me and I don’t think it ever has been,” said Canlas. “This story is about those pathfinders out there, such as the 442nd Infantry Regiment and the Tuskegee Airmen.  Those whose voices were seldom heard but translated them into action.  One of the best pieces of advice out there is to never forget where you came from and don’t be ashamed of it either. It’s what makes you, you. Continue to strive to improve professionally and personally, but always remember where you came from.”