HONOLULU - Retiring Sen. Daniel Akaka on Wednesday urged Congress to do all it can for U.S. veterans and their families and made one last appeal to allow for Native Hawaiians to form a federally recognized government, an issue he's unsuccessfully pushed for years.
In his aloha, or farewell, speech, Akaka, 88, said he was humbled to have left his mark on the U.S. Senate, in which he served for 22 years, after 14 years in the House. Akaka was the first Native Hawaiian to serve in the Senate and is one of the few U.S. Army World War II veterans to still be serving there.
Despite his tenure, he is Hawaii's junior senator; Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, is the Senate's most senior member, having served for 50 years. In a statement, Inouye, who was hospitalized earlier this week so doctors could monitor his oxygen intake, called Akaka his "friend and partner in Washington for 36 years." Inouye said he is "sad at the thought of the Senate without him."
Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa called Akaka "one of the nicest people that you can imagine."
"Senator Akaka has always been and will always be a friend and ally to the people of Maui County," Arakawa said in a statement released Wednesday. "His compassion is legendary, especially for our members of the military, veterans and their families."
He also lauded the senator for his efforts to have the Native Hawaiian people recognized by the U.S. government in a piece of legislation that is referred to as the "Akaka Bill."
"Hawaii is going to miss a truly great statesman, and we wish him the best," the mayor said.
Akaka did not seek re-election this year. His seat will be taken by a fellow Democrat, Rep. Mazie Hirono.
Akaka called his tenure "an incredible journey that I never imagined."
"My goal was to bring the spirit of aloha to our nation's capital in everything I do. In Hawaii, we look out for one another, we work together, we treat each other with respect. I hope I succeeded in sharing a little bit of Hawaii with all of you," he said.
Akaka spoke of his work on veterans' issues, born of his own experience. He said his life was forever changed by the attack on Pearl Harbor and that he believes he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after the war. He credited the GI Bill with allowing him and other veterans to build a "successful, new kind of life."
"And I say with certainty that I would not be standing before you today without the opportunity the GI Bill gave me, not only to get an education but to have structure and a path forward and a feeling that there was a way for me to help people," he said. "This proved to me that when Congress acts responsibly, it can build a better America."
While chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, he said, he dedicated himself to helping members of the military, veterans and their families, by expanding services and passing a "21st Century" GI Bill. He urged his colleagues and incoming members of Congress to do all they can for veterans and their families.
Akaka also said it was long overdue for Native Hawaiians to have a government-to-government relationship with the U.S. government, similar to what American Indian tribes have. For years, Akaka pushed legislation that would allow for this but was never successful.
"It is our responsibility as a nation to do right by America's native people, those who exercised sovereignty on lands that later became part of the United States," he said. "While we can never change the past, we have the power to change the future."
He said the federal government "has recognized hundreds of Alaska Native and American Indian communities.
"It is long past time for the Native Hawaiian people to have the same rights, same privilege and same opportunities as every other federally recognized native people," he said.
While he won't be authoring such a bill in the future, "it will forever bear my highest aspirations and heartfelt commitment to the Native Hawaiian people, the state of Hawaii and the United States of America," he said.
Akaka said he believes Hawaii has much to teach the nation and Congress. He said that in this country and in Congress, we are all in the same canoe: paddling together we can go great distances, but if we paddle in opposite directions, we will go in circles.
"I urge my colleagues to take this traditional Hawaiian symbol to heart, and put the American people first, by working together," he said.