An Asian-American Renaissance Man
By Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 25, 2001 Visit the DoD "Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month" web site at www.defenselink.mil/specials/asianpacific2001/.
Army Sgt. Peter Fitzgerald in his office in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. Photo by Pvt. Chris Charlton, USA.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
When Peter Fitzgerald graduated from law school, his mom thought he had finally reached success. But Peter had other ideas. He joined the Peace Corps and taught English in a Slovakian high school for two years.
Now, a few more years down the road, 32-year-old Sgt. Peter Fitzgerald won the 2000 Paul D. Savanuck Award, making him the Army's Military Journalist of the Year.
"It's not that she's not proud of what I've done," Fitzgerald said of his Vietnamese-born mother. The two traded words when he decided to join the Army two years ago.
"I think she'd just prefer I'd practice law," he said. "She thinks I was on this high-speed career path that I just derailed myself from."
His father, a Vietnam War veteran, feels differently, however.
"He wasn't really keen on my joining (the Army), but since I joined he thinks I did the right thing," Fitzgerald said of his father. "When I … graduated from training, he pulled me aside and said, 'I'm really proud of you.' That was nice to hear. All my life, I was expected to do well in school and do well in college and law school, but joining the Army was something unexpected. To have my father feel pride in something that was a tough decision made it easier."
Fitzgerald said joining the military at 30 wasn't easy, but he believed it was the best way to follow his long-time dream of becoming a writer and to pay off his student loans.
A staff writer at the Guidon newspaper at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., Fitzgerald is not your typical recruit, at least according to his boss.
"He is contrary to the negative stereotypes about today's recruits," said Master Sgt. Mike Alley, installation public affairs supervisor. "He's older, dedicated, mature, aggressive -– what a blessing to have a soldier like this.
"The only thing (Fitzgerald) doesn't know much about is how Uncle Sam does things," Alley continued. "All I ever need to explain is how the Army does things. The challenge for me is challenging him."
Fitzgerald said he's drawn to writing in part because it's not easy for him and yet "more rewarding than anything I have ever done. I thought joining the Army would be a good way to get some experience writing and also to serve."
It was the same desire to serve that had led him to the Peace Corps earlier, though he claims his motivations are more self-serving.
"I just look at the things that I'm interested in doing. If they help others, that's great," Fitzgerald said. "I don't really believe in the bleeding-heart going-out-and-saving- the-world thing. I don't think that's very genuine or sincere when I hear that.
"But I think it's for the greatest benefit for everybody if you do something that you believe in and you are getting something out of it," he said, adding that he got a lot more out of the Peace Corps than he ever put into it.
After living and working in the small town of Trencin for two years, Fitzgerald said his only regret is that he didn't do another year in Slovakia while he had the chance.
He has gone back to visit several times since, "to see people and polish up on my language skills," he said. He even found out he had won Journalist of the Year while he was visiting Slovakia.
"I was just in some Internet café just checking my e-mail," he said. "I had all these congratulations, and I had no idea why."
He will have an opportunity in the near future to spend some time in another Eastern European country, though. In July, Fitzgerald will deploy to Sarajevo, Bosnia- Herzegovina, for six months.
He said his experience in the Peace Corps has helped him be a better soldier by giving him a broader perspective. Since being in Fort Leonard Wood, Fitzgerald has sponsored one Slovakian and two Czech officers attending training at the post. A sponsor helps foreign students maneuver through the unfamiliar aspects of everyday life in a foreign country.
"I think I wouldn't have done that if I hadn't experienced the Peace Corps and understood what it's like to be a stranger in a strange land," he said.
Even though Fitzgerald was born in Vietnam and only came to the United States when he was six, he said he never talks about the Vietnam War with his father, who lived there for several years after the war.
"It's been a tough topic in our home," he said. "Vietnam is troubling for a lot of veterans, and he's no exception."
Fitzgerald said he thinks cultural differences contributed to his parents' divorce, while Peter was in college. "There were years of cultural separation in their marriage," he said. "They just never have been able to identify culturally."
Alley thinks perhaps Fitzgerald's upbringing and diverse background contribute to his "humanity."
"He sees the human side of the stories he writes," Alley said. "That's what draws people to his stories." Perhaps that's what the judges saw, too.