5 Chinese-American veterans awarded the Congressional Gold Medal

The ceremony was the first in an effort to honor Chinese-American WWII veterans.

Five Chinese-American World War II veterans expressed their "deepest gratitude" after being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal Tuesday during a ceremony held at the Department of Veteran Affairs.

"Whatever you hear from me or any fellow veteran of that vintage -- you may not be exaggerating or embarrassing, but that's the way we remember it," said Robert M. Lee, who served as a private in the 14th Air Force of the U.S. Army Corps. "I know at our gatherings and reunions we will try to recollect what we went through ... our experiences."

Lee, James Eng, Harry Jung, Henry Lee and Elsie Seetoo were all recognized by VA Deputy Secretary James Byrne, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao on behalf of the White House for their service in World War II as Chinese-Americans.

"I’m just so proud of all of the veterans that have fought and served and so many who have given their lives so that we can enjoy our freedom today," DeVos said.

The ceremony Tuesday was the first in an effort to honor approximately 20,000 Chinese-American veterans who served in the U.S. military in World War II.

Seetoo was the highest ranked and oldest among the group on Tuesday. During her service, she trained Chinese soldiers as medical orderlies and in 1944. She joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps as a first lieutenant. She celebrated her 100th birthday last September.

"I’ll wear it when I go out," Seetoo said about her Congressional Gold Medal. "Or maybe, just to impress the other folks that live in the retirement community, I would just wear it once."

The veterans will receive their physical Congressional Gold Medals in October.

The Chinese-American World War II Veterans Congressional Gold Medal Act was unanimously passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate in 2018 and signed into law by President Donald Trump in December. Its approval was due to a national campaign by the Chinese American Citizens Alliance. Former Rep. Ed Royce helped introduce the bill to congress and attended the ceremony Tuesday.

"Despite the discrimination that they were facing in the United States, [Chinese-Americans] enlisted in very high numbers immediately after Pear Harbor," Royce said. "I want to recognize each of you for serving in this struggle that determined that human freedom would not be defeated by fascism across this globe."