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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Leilehua grad turns out to be 'real American idol'

 •  Prison scandal attributed to 'failure of leadership'

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

When Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba stood tall in Congress yesterday, a lot of Filipinos in Hawai'i were there alongside him in spirit.

Army Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday about prison abuses in Iraq. Taguba is a Leilehua High School graduate, and his cousin here said Taguba "did his family proud."

Associated Press

Taguba, the Leilehua High School graduate who told senators he relied on family, American and Army values to put together a report on U.S. abuses of Iraqi prisoners, is a real hero, friends and supporters said.

"He did his family proud. He did his uniform proud," said his cousin, Lawrence Taguba, an arts teacher at Leilehua.

Others agreed.

Democratic and Republican senators in Washington praised Taguba yesterday for a job well done. And as far away as Manila, people were proclaiming their support: "Taguba for president! (we wish)," read the headline over an editorial in one Manila newspaper.

"A lot of people are saying that he's a real American idol," said Amy Agbayani, president of the Filipino Community Center in Waipahu. "He represents the best that we have in the armed forces and in Hawai'i."

Taguba's story is both extraordinary and representative of almost 100 years of service Filipinos have given the U.S. military, others said.

Taguba was born in the Manila district of Sampaloc, the site of the first American assault in the Philippine-American War (1899-1902) that came after Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States as a result of the Spanish-American War. He "grew up military," his cousin said.

His father, Tomas, served in the Philippines Scouts under the U.S. Army in 1942. He was captured by the Japanese army during World War II, but managed to escape during the infamous Bataan Death March. He served in the Army for 20 years and in 1999 received the Bronze Star and Prisoner of War Medal.

The family came to Hawai'i when Antonio was 11. He was planning a military career by the time he was attending Leilehua, Lawrence Taguba said.

Army Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba stands after finishing his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. The Army general says he ordered members of his investigative team to maintain their objectivity and integrity throughout the inquiry into abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.

Associated Press

"That's pretty much the way he was: A good, straight guy who knew what direction his life was going," he said.

After high school, Taguba attended Idaho State University and enrolled in the Army soon after graduating.

"Hawai'i opened my mind to the capabilities and opportunities in America," Taguba said in a 1997 interview with AsiaWeek magazine. "The diversity gave me a wide range to seek opportunities and to relate to other people."

The military has always been seen as an option for Filipinos, but not all opportunities are equal, said Dean Alegado, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa.

"For a long time, Filipinos were often limited to duties as cooks and mess boys," Alegado said. "That didn't begin to change until the 1970s, but even now for those new immigrants, the opportunity is limited. Many serve for a couple of years and return home to go to college."

Taguba's emphasis on continuing education may have opened some doors as he steadily moved through the ranks by attending numerous military and other schools. His training is as an armor officer.

Known in the military as a straight shooter and a stand-up guy, he was only the second Filipino American to be named general, getting a star in 1997. He was promoted to major general last year.

"You have to work so much harder when you are a minority," Agbayani said. "You have to command respect and prove yourself 17,000 times in order to be accepted as a leader."

Taguba was attending a meeting in the Pentagon on Sept. 11 and knew several people killed in the terrorist attack. He also served as acting director of the Army staff under Hawai'i native Gen. Eric Shinseki. On Friday, Taguba was appointed to a new position, deputy assistant secretary of defense for readiness, training and mobilization.

"I take it with great pride that we are able to assimilate ourselves into the American society," Taguba, who lives in Peachtree City, Ga., with his wife, Debbie, and children, Lindsay and Sean, said in a 1997 interview. "We have shown we can contribute to society (and) at the same time preserve our Filipino-American heritage and culture."

Taguba was deputy commanding general of the 3rd Army when he was assigned to investigate reports of wrongdoing among American military jailers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

He told senators yesterday that he ordered his investigating team to maintain objectivity and integrity throughout what he knew would be a grave, sensitive and serious situation.

"Bottom line," Taguba said, he told his investigative team to "follow our conscience and do what is morally right."

"Sir, I think you've done that," responded John Warner, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Taguba's parents, who live in Wahiawa, watched the hearings on television with a mixture of trepidation and pride, said Lawrence Taguba, who sees his cousin every year when he comes home to visit his parents.

"We were all a bit nervous for him, but he came across very well. His answers were short and to the point. He didn't try to skirt any questions, and he just stuck to the facts," he said.

Taguba's mother, Maria, was just as much to the point.

"He was very brave," she told Lawrence.

Advertiser news services contributed to this report. Reach Mike Leidemann at 525-5460 or mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com.