Leader Spotlight: Atsuko Sakurai

Veterans for American Ideals is recognizing veteran leaders who are continuing their service by building unity and standing up for American values. Through a series of interviews, we’re asking VFAI leaders to share more about how their service shaped them and what responsibility they feel veterans have to speak up on issues that relate to our national ideals.

Today’s interview is with Atsuko Sakurai, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran, computer engineering student at City College of New York, and a member of the the Vets for American Ideals NY-NJ team.

Tell me about your military service.

I joined the Coast Guard in 2002. I served in Los Angeles, Hawaii, South Texas, Bahrain, and Miami. My primary job was driving boats and ships, and I separated in 2013.

How did your service shape the person you are today?

It really affected how I look at what it means to be a member of team. I always felt I had a good idea of what being on a team meant because I played sports as a kid, but it was just a whole other level in the military. For example, in bootcamp, the men had to shave twice a day. One of the guys in my company forgot to shave one day, and all 115 of us were punished for it. It clicked that day: this is what being a team really means. You’re not just working together, you’re responsible for each other’s actions.

As a veteran, what sort of responsibility do you feel to speak up on issues that relate to American ideals?

Veterans can be the glue for the divisions right now between groups of people who don’t see eye-to-eye and aren’t even willing to try.

There is a statistic we hear a lot, that only one percent of Americans have served. I think that’s kind of misleading. It is true that fewer than one percent are on active duty at any given time. But there are many more veterans, from all generations -- more than seven percent of the population has served at some point in their lives. And that means we can be a powerful, unifying force in a time of division.

Tell me about one issue related to those ideals that is of particular importance or concern to you right now. What are you doing about it?

There is a lack of understanding of other points of view today because most people don’t feel a connection toward the other side, for example, to someone who is on the other side of the globe, or to immigrants. When you don’t know the circumstances that other people are in, it’s easy to see them as the other and exclude them. The trend toward exclusion in this country today scares me.

I’ve worked as a volunteer at a suicide hotline for the past two and half years. In my mind there is a clear connection between the rising rates of suicide and the fact that we’re so divided as a country. When you don’t feel a connection to the rest of the world, it’s easy to think, I’m not connected to anything and I can just say goodbye.

It was no longer enough in my mind to just volunteer there, that’s why I wanted to get involved with Vets for American Ideals. It brings a different objective and a different opportunity for impact through political advocacy, among other things.

What would you say to other veterans about the role that they can play in these issues as citizens?

I would say: Don’t be afraid to engage in things that you don’t have experience in.

Personally, I’m not sure if political advocacy is how I want to engage in the long term. You’ll never catch me at a protest or political rally. It’s not my thing. But that’s one of the things I like about VFAI, I have the opportunity to do something more service-oriented. You have the opportunity and get the training you need. Don’t be afraid to engage in ways that, frankly, we weren’t allowed to do when we were on active duty.

The last thing I’d say is that the much of the public doesn’t understand veterans. People are often so busy being cheerleaders for the military that they don’t criticize us, but that can actually work against us. So if more veterans speak their minds, people will see the diversity of the military, that we don’t just fit into this one cookie cutter mold of what people think veterans are.