As Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month concludes, CalVet would like to introduce two distinguished American military veterans.
Erin Dacumos Khanna attended the United States Air Force Academy, graduating in 2002 before embarking on a military career during which she rose to the rank of captain.
Fessal Aziz served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2013 to 2017. Aziz’s deployments took him to Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines.
He recently joined CalVet’s Minority and Underserved Veterans Division as a Staff Services Analyst following internships at the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and at the Secretary of State’s Political Reform Division.
These veterans are proud of their service to their nation, and of their AAPI heritage.
When Khanna arrived at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado in the summer of 1998, she entered an entirely different world than what she’d left behind in Sacramento.
“I came from a diverse area,” said Khanna. First-generation Filipino American anda star gymnast at Florin High School, she received her Congressional appointment to the Academy from the late Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Sacramento in 1997. “(At the Academy), I found myself in a school of mainly white males, a few women and few women of color,” she said. “It was a little bit of a culture shock to me. There were so few of us. We became lifelong friends – especially the female graduates.”
Khanna wants to increase interest among other AAPI who want to not only enter the military, but to commission as officers, like she did. Many young AAPI simply don’t know that the opportunity exists for them as it did for her, she said.
“Other than an aunt who was a colonel in the Army, I didn’t know anybody else in the military,” Khanna said. Certainly not women who were officers, and Khanna learned about her aunt only after her Academy acceptance.
Khanna graduated from the Academy in 2002 with a degree in social science and commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.
By the time she separated in 2006, she’d promoted to captain and served as the Assistant Officer in Charge in the 60th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron’s Gold Aircraft Maintenance Unit at Travis Air Force Base. She took a few years off to raise her young son before devoting herself to state service.
She also goes into schools to encourage teens to set a higher bar for themselves. That includes pursuing military academy appointments, as she did. They can also join Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs while in college or enroll in Officer Training School after earning a college degree.
“Most (students) don’t know its an option,” she said. “I want to let AAPI going through high school know that option is there. It’s good for them to see that women and Asian women can be in positions of leadership – ‘You can, too’ – and that these things are not out of their realm.”
Aziz was born in California, to parents who fled Afghanistan during the Soviet Union’s invasion in 1979. Or at least his mother did, her family was able to gain refugee status and come to the United States.
“My dad got caught up in a sweep of younger Afghan men by the government the Soviets installed,” Aziz said. “He spent a year in an Afghan prison, then he was forced to serve in a Soviet-backed military group.”
Upon his release, his dad, too, was able to secure refugee status and emigrate to the U.S. and California. His parents wed in an arranged marriage. Fessal was a New Year’s Day baby, born in 1995 .
He grew up in Elk Grove, graduating Franklin High School in 2013. Like many first-generation children of immigrants, he experienced the culture clash of old-country ways at home – he also speaks Farsi – while being an American kid in most other aspects of his life.
“We butted heads a little bit,” said Aziz, who joined the Marine Corps right out of high school. “But when I went into the service, they were proud of their son, and the family being represented in the U.S.”
He served in the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, deploying twice to Pacific Rim nations, but saw no combat.
Upon separating out of the Marine Corps in 2017, he immediately enrolled at California State University, Sacramento, receiving his bachelor’s degree in economics and graduating with honors in 2021. After the two internships, he joined CalVet’s staff this spring.
“I’m serving veterans, which is what I love, and because I am a veteran,” he said. “I’m definitely grateful for the opportunity. I have a sense of purpose coming to work. I am fulfilling the vision of veterans serving veterans.”
Those include other AAPI like himself, which he sometimes has to explain. So many folks think of AAPI as being from Pacific Rim nations and the islands nations in between.
“They are not going to expect someone like me,” Aziz said. “But Afghanistan is smack-dab in the middle of Asia.”
And Asia – the world’s largest continent – is absolutely huge. Any American with heritage from Russia to Korea to Sri Lanka to Turkey and everything in between would qualify as Asian American and Pacific Islander.
“I get to educate or expand the scope of what is AAPI,” Aziz said.
After all, months like AAPI Heritage are recognized in no small part to teach others about the diversity they represent.
These California veterans – Erin Dacumos Khanna and Fessal Aziz – do that very, very well.