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By Elaine Iandoli
Ancient Chinese military general Sun Tzu once noted that opponents cannot be defeated without taking the offensive. National Commander of the American Legion Fang A. Wong (B.S. ’78) follows this wisdom as he fights for the rights and protection of U.S. veterans. In his case, the enemy is multifaceted: joblessness, health concerns, and societal apathy for the sacrifices of soldiers.
Driven by diplomacy, perseverance, and steadfast reverence, Wong is crisscrossing America and making trips abroad with this message: America must stand with its veterans and provide proper health care, jobs, and gratitude for their service.
“I consider this generation the ‘next greatest generation,’ ” Wong said in September 2011, shortly after his first appearance before a joint session of the U.S. House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Each and every one of them are volunteers. They’re willing to do the dirty work that a lot of people don’t even want to consider.”
Born in Canton, China, Wong is the first Asian-American to lead the American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans service organization with 2.5 million members and 14,000 posts across the nation and five abroad. His one-year position demands constant travel to meet legislators and veterans of all ages.
Sobering statistics about joblessness and veterans’ health issues provide fodder for Wong’s testimony and public speeches. The unemployment rate for veterans who have left the armed forces since the 9/11 terrorist attacks stood at 12.1 percent in November 2011, and recent reports say veterans aged 18 to 24 had a 30.4 percent jobless rate in October. Unemployment rates are expected to rise as more troops return home and enter the job market.
“I would like to see the Department of Labor, the government, and the private sector get together and have some job training programs or hire more veterans,” says Wong. “We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to train each man and woman to be a soldier and go to war … These folks are ready and can be trained, and we need to give them an opportunity.”
For other soldiers, physical and psychological injuries plague their lives. A recent U.S. Army study showed that up to 31 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq experience debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, mainly caused by traumatic brain injuries from blasts and explosions. In 2008, the Rand Center for Military Health Policy Research reported that 320,000 vets experienced a traumatic brain injury during deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“Fortunately, we’re able to save more and more lives in the battlefield,” says Wong. “We’re able to get the wounded warriors back home. But a lot of them are not the same anymore. We’re facing a different problem: how to take care of them for the rest of their lives.”
Wong considers his current tour of duty an honor, with roots nurtured by a memorable encounter five decades ago, after he emigrated at age 12 from Hong Kong to Harlem, N.Y. He recalls a visit by an American Legion representative who rewarded top students at his Chinese language school in New York City.
“This gentleman walked up and handed me a check and medal,” Wong says. “He was wearing a color guard uniform. That left a very deep impression in my mind … that someone I didn’t even know would take the time to reward and honor us. I wanted to be associated with that group.”
In 1969, when Wong received his draft notice, he volunteered for the U.S. Army. He served 25 months in Vietnam, working in a Saigon combat support position and as a Chinese language interpreter.
When he returned to the United States, Wong learned that a processing error meant he didn’t qualify for an early discharge. He attempted to re-enlist for service in Vietnam but was unable to return since the United States was reducing its troop levels. Instead, he was stationed in Fort Monmouth, N.J., where NYIT offered extension courses. Later, he took more courses at Starrett City in the Bronx and NYIT’s Manhattan campus, earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
Following his Army career, Wong joined the American Legion in New York and worked for 21 years at L3 Communications, a defense contractor. He retired from L3 in 2011, just months before his appointment as national commander.
Wong’s goals as national commander also include fundraising for two other American Legion programs: the Child Welfare Foundation, which supports projects benefiting children, and the Legacy Scholarship Fund, which provides financial assistance to children of veterans killed in the line of duty.
“A veteran is a veteran,” says Wong. “If you’re talking about the service to the country, the love of the country, there is no difference—only age.” He recalls an event in Montana last October, where he met a veteran who joined the Legion 64 years ago. “I had to go up to congratulate him and thank him for his service.”
Wong has recounted his personal story to local media around the country. Inevitably, he talks about his childhood encounter with a member of the American Legion as a turning point. He rarely speaks about his own awards and medals except for the one handed to him when he was a boy.
“You never know how many hearts or minds or people you touch,” he says. “I still have that medal today. I carry it with me.”