AFRL commander, spouse receive Ellis Island Medal of Honor

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base -- Lt. Gen. Wendy Masiello, Defense Contract Management Agency director, Fort Lee, Virginia, and Maj. Gen. Thomas Masiello, Air Force Research Laboratory commander, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, were awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor May 9 at a ceremony on Ellis Island in New York City.

The Ellis Island Medal of Honor is an award founded by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations (NECO) that pays homage to the immigrant experience and the contribution made to America by immigrants and their children. The medals are awarded to native-born and naturalized U.S. citizens.

All branches of the U.S. armed forces traditionally participate. Both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have officially recognized the Ellis Island Medals of Honor, and each year's recipients are read into the Congressional Record. About 100 medalists are honored each year. Past medalists include six presidents, as well as Nobel Prize winners and leaders of industry, education, the arts, sports and government.

"The Masiellos are very honored to receive this award and appreciate the ideals it represents," Maj. Gen. Masiello said. "It's very personal to me, knowing that my grandparents came through Ellis Island."

A friend whose hobby is genealogy located the online manifest of the ship Maj. Gen. Masiello's paternal grandparents sailed on from Italy, as well as scans of their Ellis Island paperwork and New York City census data.

The general, who is Irish on his mother's side, said he is he particularly proud of his father, who earned a bachelor's degree before serving as an Army officer and fighting in the South Pacific during World War II. After the war, he used his GI Bill to earn a master's degree and a Ph.D. and became a college philosophy professor.

"That's a pretty big deal, given that when his parents arrived, they didn't speak any English and settled in New York City," Maj. Gen. Masiello said. "It's a great example of what can be accomplished in America."

Despite their cultural heritage, Maj. Gen. Masiello's family members identified themselves as "Americans, through and through," he said.

Lt. Gen. Masiello's heritage is Norwegian and German. She noted that both of her great-grandfathers emigrated from Germany through Ellis Island. Her family celebrates its heritage through holiday traditions, including decorations, meals and terms of endearment with family members that her mother's father often used.

"The NECO award recognizes immigrants and their descendants who have found the freedoms and opportunities in the United States promised by our Constitution, and in gratitude have given back to the United States in a multitude of ways," she said. "My parents learned their love of the United States from their parents and then shared that love with me. It ultimately prompted me to serve our great country in the United States Air Force. For me, my service isn't award worthy, but a privilege."

The Masiellos were nominated by a friend, Maj. Gen. Jay Santee, who recently retired from the Air Force and received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 2014.

"What really resonates with me is what Gen. Welsh (Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III) says, "The world's greatest Air Force - powered by Airmen, fueled by innovation'," Maj. Gen. Masiello said. "That 'powered by Airmen' is what makes our Air Force great."

He also pointed out that the honor is congruent with Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James' priority of diversity and inclusion.

"This is an example of what makes America great," he said, "that we can come from different backgrounds, we can come together - at AFRL, we believe in diversity of thought and AFRL as the center of excellence for innovation. It is our scientists, our engineers and our functionals and our support staff that allow us to be that center of innovation for the Air Force."

"Diversity introduces us to people who come from different life experiences from our own," Lt. Gen. Masiello said. "By embracing these differences we cover the blind spots we have in our own understanding. It can be a powerful force if we embrace these differences, learn from them and set our future with the broader understanding it affords us."

She said she encourages people to celebrate their heritage, and pass it down to their children.

"We all come from somewhere, and our heritage has inevitability shaped us in some way. I think we sometimes fight our heritage or some of the stereotypes our heritage might evoke. In reality, every heritage is precious. In my opinion, extract the good stuff, and learn from the bad stuff."

Maj. Gen. Masiello said while he encourages people to celebrate their heritage, he would like to see people concentrate on how to be better Americans by being an informed citizen and participate in civic activities, volunteer and understand that America's strength comes from being a nation of immigrants.

"At the end of the day, we are all Americans and we need to celebrate that fact," he said.

"The NECO award ceremony was so uplifting," Lt. Gen. Masiello said. "It reminded me of how special the privileges and freedoms our country offers, freedoms people migrate toward, relish and thrive in ... and, sometimes, there are fabulous people who choose to say thank you through service, support or generous gifting of the bounty they have been privileged to develop or earn in our great country. Now, that's American."

A complete list of medal recipients can be found at www.neco.org.