One Man’s Path To the stars
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan () - September 26, 2004 - 12:00am
Members of the United States Army are told: Be all you CAN BE.

Edward Soriano took this to heart as he followed in his late father’s footsteps. Fred Soriano had joined the US Army as a corporal and retired a major. His son was commissioned as a second lieutenant of infantry and now has three stars, commanding the I Corps and Fort Lewis in Washington.

Lt. Gen. Edward Soriano is the highest-ranking Filipino-American in the US armed forces, and is one of only two US generals who trace their roots to the Philippines.

Soriano, who turns 58 in November, retraced those roots last week, returning to the Philippines for the first time since leaving the country with his family when he was six.

Last Sunday he was received with tearful jubilation by relatives and residents of Alcala, his hometown in Pangasinan that was placed under quarantine last year in an unprecedented move to contain the spread of the deadly SARS virus.

As Soriano got acquainted with long-lost relatives and made new friends in the Philippines, questions took a common thread: How does a Filipino attain the heights he has reached in the army of the world’s lone superpower?

Success is possible, Soriano says, "if a person establishes the goals and objectives, work very hard at what he does, and if that person doesn’t give up too easily and commits himself, dedicates himself to what he wants to do."
No discrimination
Rising through the ranks in the US Army, Soriano says he never felt discriminated against. "I never really thought about it much," he says of racial discrimination. "If I did I don’t remember."

He was commissioned in 1970, shortly after he received his management degree from San Jose State University. By that time, he says, the US military was already a highly diverse organization, employing an increasing number of women and accepting recruits regardless of ethnicity. This diversity, he points out, is one of the strengths of the US military.

To this day, however, Filipinos and other Asian-Americans still account for only a tiny fraction of US military personnel.

If there were any major hurdles along the way to three-star rank, it had nothing to do with race, Soriano says.

"The challenge is always seeking those opportunities that allow you to progress, that allow you to get better," he says. "And that’s what I did, that’s how I rose through the ranks, how I got all the right jobs, the right positions. I worked as hard as I could, tried to be the best that I could possibly be."

At the Philippine Military Academy last Sunday in Baguio City, cadets wanted to know how they could get into the US Military Academy at West Point.

Soriano is not a West Pointer; he attended several military schools and graduated from the Army War College in 1989. But he gave the cadets the same advice he has often heard in the US Army: "Be all you can be… then you can be successful in any profession regardless of ethnic background."
Filipino or American?
Soriano is ethnic only in looks; most everything else about him is American.

After leaving the Philippines to migrate half a century ago, his parents made sure he and his sister learned English quickly to speed up their assimilation into a foreign culture. The family moved from one US military enclave to another, often where there were few other Filipinos. Over time the two children lost their ability to understand their native tongue.

The result is a native of Pangasinan who neither speaks nor understands Filipino but speaks flawless American English. For his first homecoming, Soriano has learned to say "mabuhay"–the greeting on the streamer that welcomed him to Alcala.

His wife, the former Vivian Guillermo whose parents are from Laoag, can understand a little Filipino. But Vivian was born and bred in California and came to the Philippines with her husband last week only for the second time in her life. The first was for a vacation when she was 19.

Filipinos will see the Soriano household as American. Their two children left home upon entering college, never to return except for visits.

Melissa, now 30, teaches fourth grade in Denver, Colorado and is married to an American. Soriano is expecting his first grandchild in March. His son Keith, 26, also lives in Denver and is in the golf business.

Soriano himself left home when he entered college. His mother Carnation, widowed in 1989, lives alone in her own home in San Francisco. His sister is in California as well and is married to an American.

Do they have maids? Soriano grins when told that a typical middle-class household in the Philippines has a maid or two and a driver. He has a driver and an aide-de-camp, he says, but only because of his position, and both are on the payroll of the US government. And no, there are no maids.

The Soriano household, however, is familiar with Philippine cuisine. Soriano says he "loves" Philippine food such as adobo and pinakbet.

Does he see himself more of an American or a Filipino?

"The answer is quite obvious– I’m Filipino-American," Soriano replies.
No time to return
Why did it take him 51 years to return to his native land? "There was simply no time," he says.

He and his sister lived the life of Army brats, moving around so much with their parents not just within the United States but also in different countries.

Fred Soriano was a corporal in the 57th Infantry Regiment of the Philippine Scouts when the Japanese attacked Corregidor.

He was among those taken as prisoners of war by the Japanese and forced to march to interment camps in Tarlac. He survived the Death March but his brother died.

Sweeping his gaze across Manila Bay from the US Embassy compound in Manila, General Soriano points to Corregidor on the horizon. He has not been to the island, but last Monday he stopped by the shrine in Capas, Tarlac, erected in honor of the heroes of the Death March.

"What a wonderful shrine," he says, as he recalls seeing the names of his father and uncle in the roster of heroes.

Later in Manila, Soriano also visited the burial ground at Fort Bonifacio for Filipinos and Americans who fought during World War II.

Fred Soriano joined the regular US Army after the war. He was again taken prisoner during the Korean War and was a POW for a long time, but Ed Soriano says his father said little about that ordeal.

The father inspired the son to follow in his footsteps.

"I thought what my father was doing was good," Soriano says. "He was a great example for me. He was probably the reason I joined the military."

The remains of Fred Soriano are in San Francisco, in his adopted land.

Upon his return to the United States, General Soriano says he will encourage his children to visit the Philippines as well. From what he has learned about the Philippines over the years, he says, "tremendous progress has been made."
Distinguished son
In Alcala, he was conferred an award as a distinguished son of the town by local officials led by the mayor.

The award will take pride of place alongside numerous other honors Soriano has received in his three decades of military service.

Soriano is the recipient of the Distinguished Service Medal, two awards of the Defense Superior Service Medal, four awards of the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, three awards of the Meritorious Service Medal and several Army Commendation and Achievement Medals.

He holds the expert infantryman’s badge and is ranger and airborne qualified.

His military service has taken him to leadership and command positions with airborne as well as light and mechanized infantry units around the world.

After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, an office for homeland security was created under the US Joint Forces Command–a combatant office independent of the civilian office with a similar name headed by Tom Ridge. Soriano became the second director of homeland security in the military, assuming the post in November 2001. He held the position for ten months before being named commanding general of I Corps and Fort Lewis in Washington.

"You can’t quit," he says. "You just do the best you possibly can and you let the system take care of itself."

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