FORT POLK, La. — Fort Polk’s Youth Gym buzzed with excitement as a packed house waited to help celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month May 24.

Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is recognized nationally throughout May and acknowledges the roles that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have played in America’s history and celebrates their achievements and contributions. The observance also celebrates the cultural traditions, ancestry, native languages and unique experiences of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

The theme of this year’s celebration is “Unite our vision by working together,” based on the premise that possibilities in America are endless with collective contributions of people from every walk of life and corner of the earth.

The Asian/Pacific American designation encompasses 28 Asian and 19 Pacific Islander subgroups representing a vast array of languages and cultures. These groups include Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Indian, Laotian, Cambodian, Thai, Pakistani and many others.

Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders refers to people having ancestors originating from Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, Saipan, Tinian and other Pacific Islands.

Maj. Rendy Yudhistira, a first generation Indonesian American and 115th Combat Support Hospital executive officer, was guest speaker at the celebration.

“I am a child of immigrants. My parents migrated to the United States from Indonesia. Because of the obstacles they overcame, I have been blessed with the American dream,” he said.

As early as middle school, Yudhistira said he knew he wanted to serve in the military.

“When I joined the Army, I discovered that my cultural core values aligned with the Army’s,” he said.

Like him, nearly 59,000 Soldiers identifying as Asian American/Pacific Islander serve in the Army and thousands of Asian and Pacific Islander American warriors have served in America’s Army since the Civil War.

“I’m proud of that service. I believe I would not be standing here as a major in the United States Army if it were not for the sacrifices of the Asian and Pacific Islanders that came before me,” said Yudhistira. “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are proud people who not only represent their heritage, but also are proud Americans, Soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen that walk beside us and in the ranks every day,”

The highlight of the observance was the many dances shared by large groups of Polynesian and Filipino dancers in native dress.

Spc. John Amituanai, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 509th Infantry Regiment, led the Polynesian dancers with what he called culture guiding, similar to a drill sergeant shouting cadence to his cadets, but in a friendlier way.

Amituanai said the dances arose as a way for his people to use actions to explain important parts of their lives.

“These dances tell the story of our ancestors. Today, it is a connection to not only our culture but also our past and helps us keep our history alive,” said Amituanai.

Brig. Gen. Patrick D. Frank, Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk commanding general, thanked those in attendance for supporting the celebration, as well as the diversity and strength of the Army.

Frank said the dancers and Soldiers exemplify their culture and are a testament to the Army.

“We have all enjoyed being a part of the celebration of these cultures through the dancers as they performed for us,” said Frank.

Lt. Col. Sonja Whitehead, 519th Military Police Battalion commander, said it’s awesome to see Soldiers come together to participate in part of their heritage. “The Army is unique in celebrating those cultures. They understand when we take the uniform off we are all a little different, but when we put it on again we are a united team,” she said.