WASHINGTON — In a ceremony to honor Chinese-American World War II veterans, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Tuesday that recognition of the Chinese-American service in the armed forces is long overdue.

The ceremony comes at the heels of the bipartisan Chinese-American World War II Veteran Congressional Gold Medal Act, which passed in December and collectively honors the Chinese-American veterans who served in WWII with a Congressional Gold Medal.

“They are inspiring and have sacrificed so much for our country. It is something we needed to do,” said DeVos.

At the time of WWII, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which restricted Chinese immigration and limited the Chinese population in the United States, was still in effect. As a result, about 40 percent of the nearly 20,000 Chinese-Americans who served in the U.S. Armed Forces during WWII were not American citizens.

With few remaining Chinese American WWII veterans, organizations like the Chinese American Citizens Alliance advocated for recognition of these veterans. Eventually, there was a sense of urgency to pass the legislation, said former Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., who co-sponsored the Chinese-American World War II Veteran Congressional Gold Medal Act.

“This is the last of a generation that rescued our values from fascism. The time is at hand for their grandchildren and our whole nation to recognize their contributions to the Pacific War,” said Royce.

Hosted by the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, the five veterans spoke about their service in the Army, Navy, and Air Force and experiences as Chinese-Americans in the military.

“This event today gave Chinese-Americans a platform and opportunity to share their stories,” said Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao. “They truly are the best we have to offer and it’s important we commend these veterans and all those who served, despite the discrimination they faced.”

Chinese-Americans have served since the Civil War and it’s important to recognize the veterans and the history of Chinese-Americans in the United States, said former president Edmond Gor of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance.

“It’s important we focus on getting our history in this country out there. To put their stories down on paper is amazing and important,” said Gor.

Secretary Chao, the first Asian American woman to serve in the president’s cabinet, called the veterans and ceremony “reminders” that Asian Americans are contributing to every part of American society.

For the veterans themselves, the ceremony was meaningful because of the family members who were in attendance. “It’s an honor to be here in front of my family,” said Henry Lee, who served in the army from 1946 through 1949. “I have always been proud to be an American and it’s been nice to see everyone here supporting us.”