Audrey military story cover

:: October/November 2005 ::


A Call to Duty

Hazel Ah Ying Lee at WASP briefing

The Voices of Asian American Women in the Military

text Teena Apeles

From flying helicopters to conducting the president’s annual checkup and balancing budgets to transporting tanks across combat zones, the jobs of Asian American servicewomen of yesterday and today have been diverse. Though the actual number of Asian American women in each branch of the United States Armed Forces is in the mere thousands, their contributions are far from trivial.

Unfortunately, for decades, the achievements of Asian men and American women have overshadowed the military accomplishments of their Asian American female comrades who, too, have often placed themselves in harm’s way because of their work. This month, Audrey brings to light a few of their courageous stories. Each woman enlisted for unique reasons, came from varied backgrounds and had very different duties while active, yet there is much that unites them: an unwavering commitment to the homeland, pride in their work and the sentiment that military service has greatly enriched their lives.

A Rich Heritage

It was just over 60 years ago, during World War II, that Asian American women began entering the military. The Women’s Army Corps, or WAC, was the first organization to have them in their ranks. Mostly Japanese American, these women bridged the gap between cultures, serving as translators and interpreters or providing administrative support in military offices. Some Chinese American women were recruited to conduct air traffic control and weather forecasting, among other duties, for the Army Airforce as Air WACs, while others joined Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES, and the Army Nurse Corps to care for injured servicemen.

Chinese Americans Margaret “Maggie” Gee and Hazel Ah Ying Lee were among the more notable young women who joined the war effort and whose love for flying put them in the history books when they became Women Airforce Service Pilots, better known as WASP. “I had just started college in Berkeley, Calif.,” says Gee, now in her early 80s, from her home in Berkeley. “And at that time I had decided I really wanted to do something. It was a different type of war; there was total mobilization. I felt very patriotic, very different than today.”

She already knew how to fly. When the war started, she became a mechanical draftsman at Mare Island, Calif., repairing destroyers and submarines, but that kind of work did little to excite her. “Being young, I was quite bored. I wanted to do something a little more active,” she recalls. So in 1943, she joined the WASP.

As WASP, Gee and Lee were charged with jobs left empty by men who were sent overseas for war missions. “We got the same training that the men did in the Army Airforce,” Gee stresses. “It’s not like today’s women who are flying. We were part of the air transport command: a mixture of ferrying planes within this country, towing targets, being private service pilots, instructing pilots and things like that.” Of course, WASP’s favorite responsibility was to test aircraft. “I had the opportunity to fly military airplanes, big airplanes,” she adds. “Put in the context of the time, we were lucky.” WASP flew every kind of military airplane available and became trailblazers for that very reason, leading the charge for more American women to become aviators.

The WASP were technically civilians and, unfortunately, the program was disbanded after just two years when the men started coming home. The 1,074 women of WASP were later militarized and made veterans, though, not all the women survived their homeland missions. Lee was among the 38 WASP who perished in air crashes while on duty, but her service is far from forgotten.

In the Medical Field

Among the most prominent Asian American military women in recent years is Filipino American Dr. Connie Mariano, retired rear admiral and a 24-year veteran, whose family’s American military tradition is even longer than that of Asian American women in general. In 1992, she became the first military physician in the history of the White House, tending to the health of three presidents during her tenure until her retirement in 2001.

Born on a Navy base in the Philippines, Mariano’s father and uncles had joined the service in the 1920s and ’40s as valets and stewards. “It was the only life I knew because I was a Navy brat,” she says, referring to military life. So when she was offered a full scholarship to the military medical school after graduating from college in 1977, she accepted. Little did she know that that decision would eventually lead her to one of the most unique and important positions in the nation.

Mariano describes most of her time in medical school as being much like the Naval academy or West Point, but her class also trained at Fort Mead in Maryland. “We were in [camouflage] with M16s and I thought, oh boy, this is like M.A.S.H.,” she says. “We got a lot of military training because they prepare future physicians and military officers to serve the medical corps for the Armed Forces.”

It was years later, when she was stationed as division head of internal medicine at a naval hospital in San Diego, her hometown, that she was nominated to go to the White House to be the Navy White House physician for George H.W. Bush. She remained as senior physician for President Bill Clinton and George W. Bush until 2001.

Each day and president meant different challenges. She was on call 24 hours a day and her schedule depended on “whatever the president was doing at that time.” Regarding Clinton, Mariano says, “He was always predictably unpredictable.” She was with him through his entire presidency, traveling with him all over the world (“I’ve been to over a 100 countries,” she boasts) or just remaining close by when Clinton went for a jog. As for the Bushes, “George Sr. was very predictable … and so was his son.”

Though being a doctor in Washington, D.C., is a radically different environment than working in a war zone, in a sense, every day Mariano reported for work, she was in danger. By virtue of her job, she lived in the area known as the “kill zone.” The president is always a target and her job as first responder required her to be “within a few feet of the president … shadowing him,” daily placing her in the line of fire.

She left her post after nine years to work at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., but currently is embarking on a new challenge: setting up her own company to do private VIP care — what she knows best — and spend time with her own “first” family.

Dr. Mariano and White House Medical Unit at her promotion ceremony.

In the Office

Meanwhile, for 26-year-old Sergeant Salina Ling, who arrived in the States from Malaysia eight years ago, the military provided valuable business training, making her more marketable in her civilian life. She joined the Army Reserves and trained to be a personnel services specialist, easily handling the “one weekend a month, two weeks a year” commitment. “Of course,” she says, laughing, “in times of war, when they need you, then they call you up.”

That’s what happened in January 2003, when her unit was activated to go to Kuwait. “I got there and I think I was in denial at first, thinking, maybe tonight when I go to bed I’ll wake up in the morning and I’ll be home.”

She served in Kuwait for just over 11 months, receiving additional training in other specialties to become a finance/budget specialist. Ling managed and approved funding for soldier and office supplies, as well as for the outfitting of the Free Iraqi Soldiers. She describes her daily work schedule while there as being “normal”: “I’d wake up, get ready, go to work … you have your hour lunch, you walk over to the dining facility, eat your lunch, come back and work some more and go back to your room.”

The threat of danger was minimal for the most part. “It wasn’t constantly on my mind because we were not out on the field like the others were,” Ling says. “We were on post and I was in Kuwait, not Iraq. However, during the war, we were in danger when scuds (missiles) were being shot towards our camp. I had to put on my gas mask and chemical suit quite a few times.”

The novelty of being in the Middle East during wartime eventually wore off. “It was certainly a shock at first, but in the end, I really enjoyed the whole experience,” says the young sergeant, “because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” And when life overseas did get difficult and she felt like hating the world, she’d remind herself of what a sergeant told her in boot camp: “This too will pass.” It did and now Ling is currently stationed in her hometown of Atlanta, Ga., working as an auditor.

In the Air

Of course, not all servicewomen choose the relatively safe confines of an office environment. Army Major Ladda “Tammy” Duckworth, whose mother is Thai and father is Caucasian, has been in the reserved forces for over a decade, first in the Army Reserves, and 10 years in the Illinois Army National Guard. When she joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) in 1990, at age 22, she knew military service was for her. And soon enough, Duckworth knew exactly where she wanted to be — in the thick of the battle. She trained to become a Black Hawk helicopter pilot.

Over her long career, she has been a platoon leader, a detachment commander, a battalion logistics officer, a company commander and a battle captain. Such jobs involved everything from commanding a platoon of helicopters to supervising the flow of materials through the battalion (equipment valued at over $1 billion) to running “the day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute combat operations for the battalion,” she says. In addition, there was also the thrill of piloting Black Hawk helicopters. (She is among the 300 or so women in the Army who are equipped to do so.)

“I wanted to serve in aviation because it was the only ‘combat’ job open to women in the army,” she says. “I didn’t think it was fair that my male counterparts had to risk combat, yet I could avoid it solely because of my gender.”

As one of the few women in a combat role (she served directly with a total of seven other women in her entire Army aviation career), on occasion, she faces some negative treatment by servicemen. “I just ignore them, do the best that I can, kick their butts and move on. I would say 99 percent of the time, my gender and race have made no difference in how I am treated in the Army. That’s what I love about the service,” Duckworth says. “Your buddies don’t care if you are male or female, white or yellow. They just want to know that when the shooting starts, you’ll be there covering their back and they’ll cover yours.”

She realized how important that camaraderie was when she was activated for deployment to Iraq in December 2003. Eight months into her time there, a grenade penetrated her helicopter beneath her feet and exploded at her knees. “Combat is that cliché of long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of intense pressure,” she says. “I was stationed at a base where we were under constant mortar and rocket attacks. After a while you just learn to ignore them unless one lands near where you are located. On the day I was shot down, I had a smooth mission and was nearing the end of my long, uneventful day.” That’s when tragedy struck.

Duckworth says of the incident: “The rocket propelled grenade (RPG) that hit me induced those few minutes of intense concentration and pressure as I tried to land the helicopter.” Yet her opinion of combat hasn’t really changed. “It sucks and should be avoided. However, if we have to fight, then we’re going to do it as a team and we will fight the enemy with as much fury and military might as we can muster,” she continues. “If anything, combat has shown me that I can rise to the challenge and that the love and friendship that I share with my buddies truly make us brothers in arms regardless of race or gender. After all, I am alive today because my crew refused to leave what they thought was my dead body behind, carried me out, got me to a medical evac helicopter and saved my life.”

Duckworth suffered the loss of both of her legs due to the blast, among other injuries. She has remained on active duty orders as an activated National Guardsman while recuperating from her injuries and is currently associated with a medical hold company at Walter Reed Army Hospital where her job is “to get well and rehabilitate my body.” But once she’s better, Duckworth is committed to her post. “I have served 14 years and plan to request the Army to let me continue to serve in the National Guard once I am released from the hospital.”

On the Ground

While Duckworth took to the air, First Lieutenant Viviene Eascalona McNamara of the Illinois National Guard worked at ground level. Like Sgt. Ling, she was attracted by the promise of “‘one weekend a month, two weeks a year,’ just like the commercial,” McNamara says on the phone from Grafenwoehr, Germany, where she and her husband, who is also an officer, are stationed. “But that’s turned into a big joke because I’ve been active for almost three years now.”

A New Jersey native, she had been studying to be a teacher when she enlisted. “I figured if I didn’t do it then, I would never do it,” says the 33-year-old Filipino American, who is being promoted to captain. “It was a challenge I knew that I could accomplish, to go through boot camp and go through the training.”

In her eight years of service, McNamara has participated in missions close to home and overseas. After September 11, her National Guard unit in New Jersey was activated for various homeland security missions, including securing the bridges and tunnels in New York and New Jersey. Her experience conducting operations with heavy cargo during that time made her an asset to have in Iraq years later.

She was deployed to support Operation Iraqi Freedom II from February 2004 to March 2005 as a Heavy Equipment Transport (HET) platoon leader. There, McNamara commanded and managed a unit of 46 soldiers and 24 HETs. One of five women in the unit, she conducted convoys throughout Iraq, transporting various combat and combat support units to tactical areas of offensive operations, forward operating bases and rear operations. She managed combat drops to Fallujah, Najaf and Karbala. Her unit also provided a key transportation support role for the Iraqi Army’s 1st Armored Brigade and pre-positioned Iraqi security forces for election day.

Her everyday accessory? “I carried an M16 rifle.” In a war zone, “you’re with your weapon all the time,” says McNamara. Though current policies bar women from branches of the army that are considered combat armed, “in this war now, women are seeing a lot of combat because we’re in a lot of support units that are arm-in-arm, hand-in-hand with armor, artillery and infantry units.”

There was no such thing as a typical day for the officer while in Iraq. “As soon as we [Company Bravo Company 50th Main Support Battalion] got there, we hit the ground running. Again being the largest trucks in the Army, my platoon was on the road all the time.” For the first six months, as platoon leader, she was not only on the road, but running convoys and assisting and training other convoy commanders. In addition, she had regular administrative work to attend to — “coordinating back to our home state via email had me standing in line for maybe 10 to 30 minutes a night to wait in line for the Internet,” she remembers.

And because of the nature of their missions, there were those days that her unit did come under heavy fire. “I have to say that the company altogether and our platoon experienced a lot of bad stuff,” says McNamara, without going into detail. “I’ve seen my share, especially being in convoys on the road. It was like a usual thing to hear the shots being fired at you, mortars, things like that … so you didn’t want to be stuck.” This meant “unfortunately, most of us did [use our M16s],” she notes in a somber tone.

Her company returned home to a parade, which she calls “nice.” “I probably wouldn’t be too happy if anything happened to me,” says McNamara, who is expecting her first child this fall. “Thank God it didn’t. I owe that to training … The biggest success for me is not only to come back intact, but that my platoon did. And overall we did fantastic. Just coming out of there knowing that we succeeded on our combat tour of duty and I was part of that, I’m proud.”

The Good, the Bad and the Love

Besides everything that their jobs threw at them, each also had her own personal challenges while being on active duty. For pilot Gee, the most demanding part of her job was flying planes. “There was no combat or anything, but there is a fair amount of danger in being a pilot.” But Mariano’s struggle involved stereotypes that made people underestimate her potential as a doctor: “Number one, you’re a woman. Number two, you’re an Asian woman …. How could you possibly do this? And I tell these guys, ‘well, my knife is just as sharp as any big guy’s knife,’” she jokes.

For Duckworth, on the other hand, juggling her civilian life with her military service was very trying. “As a National Guard pilot, my workweek consisted of working my civilian job and then, at least once a week, reporting to my unit to fly missions at night after work,” she recalls. “Then I’d get home after midnight and have to go back to my civilian job the next day. I once worked every weekend for the Army for 12 weeks straight. It can be tiring.”

All those hours on duty inevitably means time away from the people you love, especially if you’re on active duty. “Being prepared to be separated from your loved ones, hands down, is the most challenging,” says McNamara. “When I thought about it [in Iraq], it was such a terrible feeling. And to even allow yourself to think that you won’t see them ever again was perhaps the worst feeling in the world.”

But with the challenges also comes several rewards. “Not everyone can say I’ve gone to war for the country,” says Ling. “That gives me a lot of pride so I think that’s the biggest reward and that really has helped me in my life. I can tell my kids I was in the Iraq War. Plus, in the reserves, you really make lifelong friends because you go through tough, tough times. So you get to trust each other.”

And Duckworth, despite the losses she suffered in Iraq, is still a huge proponent of the Armed Forces, prizing the opportunity to serve with “some of the finest men and women this nation has to offer.” As with her fellow comrades, she had expectations when she entered, but has been blessed many times over because of her military career path. “I expected to serve with other people who truly felt the desire to serve their country and defend those values of the United States of America. My feelings have not changed. I am truly privileged to be allowed the honor of wearing the uniform and serving as a leader in this country’s Army. I don’t know of many other countries in the world that would let an Asian American female serve as a helicopter pilot and a leader in its fighting forces. What a democracy!”

Paving the Way

Remembering a few of the women who forged new ground for Asian American women, and American women in general, in the U.S. Armed Forces.

1940s Florence Ebersole Smith Finch receives the Pacific Campaign ribbon for her service in the Filipino underground during WWII and becomes one of the few women honored with the Medal of Freedom for her service in the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPAR).

1943 Margaret “Maggie” Gee and Hazel Ah Ying Lee join the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), becoming among the first American women to fly military aircraft and the only two Asian WASP. Thinking back to the experience, Gee notes, “we were pioneers.”

Hazel Toy Nakashima and Jit Wong become the first two women in the Air WACs (Women’s Army Corps) in the Army Airforce.

1944 Susan Ahn Cuddy enters the U.S. Navy as the first Asian American and later becomes the first woman gunnery officer in the history of the Navy.

1988 Grace Parmalee becomes the first Asian American female warrant officer in the U.S. Coast Guard.

1992 Dr. Connie Mariano is appointed the first military physician in the history of the White House.

2000 President Bill Clinton promotes Mariano to the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, the first Asian American woman to occupy that rank. In response to her promotion, she said, “the ceiling has broken down and we’re still waiting for more women to come up the ranks.”