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Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Military Health

Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders have been serving U.S. military since the War of 1812, consistently answering the call to service with bravery and ingenuity throughout history.

By Presidential Proclamation, May is designated yearly as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, in recognition of the culture and contributions of Asian American and Pacific Islanders to the United States.

The Military Health System honors the Asian American and Pacific Islander medical leaders, thinkers, and healers whose barrier-breaking examples have advanced military medicine while celebrating today’s trailblazers who exemplify the AAPI legacy of honor and service.

Visit the Department of Defense Spotlight for more stories of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who have served in defense of our nation, past a present.

AAPI Timeline Banner

A timeline of AAPI trailblazers and those they've inspired who are making history in their own time:

1940 Isaac Kawasaki

AAPI2023 Isaac Kawasaki

If history is any indication, Isaac Kawasaki was born to serve his country and his community. The son of Japanese immigrants, Kawasaki graduated from the University of Cincinnati Medical School. In 1940, he eagerly accepted an invitation to join Tripler Hospital in Honolulu, where he was quickly promoted to captain. On Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Kawasaki was assigned as a surgeon to the 100th Infantry Battalion. He was shipped out to Italy. Doctors weren’t normally sent to front lines, but Kawasaki insisted. After suffering heavy German tank fire and nearly losing a leg, his spirit of service wasn’t broken. He healed and then he joined the 133rd Evacuation Hospital in England, landing with the hospital team on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. After the war, Lt. Col. Isaac “Doc” Kawasaki became a family doctor in Honolulu and remained active in the local medical community for the rest of his life.

1941 Richard Kainuma

Few immigrant-Japanese families in rural Hawaii had the means to support a child’s education on the mainland, much less medical school. Richard Kainuma got there, though, via sacrifice and talent. After graduating, he worked as a general practitioner and surgeon. He enlisted as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and in 1941 was assigned to the 100th Infantry Battalion. Already a very skilled doctor, Kainuma was promoted to captain. The 100th Battalion landed in Italy in 1943, heading directly to German lines. Kainuma was seriously injured, but in his unwavering desire to serve, he arranged for special assignment as chief surgeon to the 100th’s aid station while he healed. When the war ended, Capt. Richard Kainuma returned to Hawaii, re-established his practice, and dedicated himself to the modernization of the former Japanese Benefit Hospital.

1941 The Northcott Brothers

You’ve probably heard of the Sullivan brothers, those five sibling sailors lost at Guadalcanal in WWII. Less known are the Northcott brothers: John, Robert, and Thomas. Born and raised in the Philippines, the brothers enlisted in the U.S. Navy together in January 1941. These seamen apprentices-turned hospital corpsmen survived disease, torture, and deprivation over their first years of service. They were assigned to Bilibid detention hospital unit near Manila, treating the sick and wounded under makeshift, deplorable conditions. And despite constant harassment by guards, the brothers shared their meager supplies with less fortunate and sick prisoners. All three Northcott’s were promoted to pharmacist’s mate third class in 1942, and each was awarded the Bronze Star, the fourth-highest ranking award that a service member can receive.

1941 Katsumi Kometani

AAPI2023 Katsumi Kometani

Katsumi Kometani’s story exemplifies service to country and community. A native Hawaiian from Japanese parents of meager means, Kometani earned an athletic scholarship to complete Dental School at the University of Southern California. Returning to Hawaii, he opened a successful dental practice. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the 35 year-old closed shop to join the U.S. Dental Corps. Assigned to the 100th Infantry Battalion (too small to rate its own dentist), Kometani was named morale officer and shipped out to Italy. He kept soldiers in good spirits, stepped in when they faced racism, and organized social functions to raise morale. He was awarded a Silver Star for leading a lost combat patrol to safety — under fire and over miles of tough terrain. After the war, Kometani returned to his dental practice in Hawaii, and ever the morale officer, he traveled to meet and comfort families of his 100th Battalion brothers lost in battle.

1942 Helen Pon Onyett

AAPI2023 Helen Pon Onyett

Helen Pon Onyett was born in Connecticut to Chinese immigrant parents. Her family and teachers encouraged her to become a nurse. Following nursing school, Onyett joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps in 1942. Under extreme conditions, she risked her life treating wounded soldiers on landing ships and in tent hospitals in North Africa. Eventually assigned back to the States at Patrick Henry’s Camp in Virginia, Onyett managed neuropsychiatric, venereal disease, and infectious hepatitis wards. For her service, she was awarded the Legion of Merit. In 1971, Helen Pon Onyett was the first Chinese American woman to be promoted to colonel. Col. Onyett retired after 36 years of service.

1943 The 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team

After the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor — and subsequent creation of Japanese internment camps — racism against Japanese Americans was rampant. But Japanese Americans were equally outraged at the attack on U.S. soil. Despite the bigotries against them, many answered the call to American service, including 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team, a segregated Japanese American unit created by President Roosevelt. The 442nd began with 4,000 American-born Japanese men and had to be replaced nearly three and a half times. The unit included officers in medicine or dentistry as well as enlistees with no medical training. It was the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of the U.S. Military. In total, about 14,000 men served in the 422nd, ultimately earning 9,486 Purple Hearts, 21 Medals of Honor and an unprecedented eight Presidential Unit Citations.

1943 Marietta Chong Eng

Marietta Chong Eng was born into a Chinese family in Hawaii. During World War II, she joined the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). After her training as a Navy physiotherapist, she was assigned to the U.S. Naval Hospital on Male Island, California, as a Marine lieutenant. She was responsible for caring for wounded service members who had lost their hands and feet in the war. She taught them how to navigate daily life. Eng loved to wear the military uniform. So much so, that she wore it to her wedding! Eng and her husband settled in Oakland, California with their children, where she was a physical therapist for many years. In 2021, 98-year-old Marietta Eng was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal — wearing that same uniform that gave her so much pride.

1944 Elsie Chin Yuen Seetoo

AAPI2023 Elsie Chin Yuen Seetoo

Born in California to Chinese immigrants, Elsie Chin’s family returned to China due to economic hardships. Chin worked her way through nursing school in Hong Kong, and tirelessly tended to Chinese wounded soldiers after Japan bombed Hong Kong in 1941. When Japan took occupation of the hospital where she worked, she disguised herself as a peasant and slipped past guards to freedom. Returning to the States in 1946, she became the first Chinese American nurse to serve in the U.S. Army Nurse as first lieutenant. After the war, she earned her Nursing degree, becoming a translator of English/Chinese medical literature, and a technical writer at the Naval Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health. In 2018, Seetoo, at 102 years old, received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor awarded by Congress.

1949 Ruth Tanaka

Ruth Tanaka’s dreams of becoming a nurse were dashed because she was Japanese American, but that didn’t stop her from rising through the ranks of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps Reserve. Raised in farming camp communities in California, Tanaka’s family eventually moved to Denver, Colo. Because of her nationality, Tanaka was denied a nurse training opportunity at a local hospital, but she persevered and got her nursing degree under the Cadet Nursing program in 1947. Polio was rampant at the time, so treating polio patients became her specialty and made her a great fit when she joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps in 1949 where she treated polio patients in Germany. She performed military medical leadership assignments in Asia and the U.S., and after 20 years of service, retired in 1969. Lt. Col. Ruth Tanaka was interred into the Florence Nightingale section of Arlington National Cemetery in 2007.

1950 Richard Kekuni Blaisdell

A 1942 graduate of Kamehameha Schools in Hawaii, Richard Blaisdell became an expert in hematology and pathology. From 1950-1954 he served as an Army battalion surgeon in Korea and a medical officer in Japan and Taiwan. After his military duty, Dr. Blaisdell was appointed to the U.S. Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Hiroshima and Nagasaki following World War II, to study the effects of radiation on people exposed to atomic bomb fallout in those cities. In 1983, Dr. Blaisdell also published his findings on the decline of Native Hawaiians’ health, which led to the passing of the Native Hawaiian Health Care Improvement Act in 1988. The Act provides health care services, disease prevention, and comprehensive care to Native Hawaiians that is tailored to be culturally appropriate to their respective island communities.

1955 Bienvenido Dona

Bienvenido Dona enlisted in the Navy as a mess steward at age 27. He was among the rare few to break from steward to striker, eventually graduating from the Hospital Corps School in San Diego. Thus, Dona became one of the first Filipino nationals to serve as hospital corpsman. In 1965, he was assigned to the 3d Battalion, 7th Marines with orders to Vietnam, where “Doc” Dona became known as a fearless first responder. In 1966, the corpsman who often disregarded his own safety to reach wounded Marines was shot and killed. His final moments were spent attending to a fallen Marine. For his dedication to duty, Dona was posthumously awarded the Silver Star. Today, Bienvenido Dona’s name is one of 645 hospital corpsmen and 57,939 servicemen enshrined on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.

1966 Miki Iwata

AAPI2023 Miki Iwata

Until she was four years old, life as Miki Iwata knew it was spent in an internment facility awaiting her father’s release from FBI custody. After her father’s release, Iwata studied to be a nurse practitioner and enlisted in the Navy in 1966 as a lieutenant junior grade and served in the Vietnam War. She was among the first women to serve on a Navy ship, the USS Sanctuary. Her duties as a naval nurse included caring for young sailors with massive wounds and injuries, as well as reading them letters from home that she said sometimes made her break down and cry. Iwata advanced to become the first Japanese American female to attain the rank of captain in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps.

1977 Eleanor Mariano

Eleanor Mariano’s family moved from the Philippines to Hawaii when she was two years old. Valedictorian of her high school, she then graduated with honors from University of California and joined the U.S. Navy. She earned her medical degree from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences School of Medicine. From 1982-1990, Lt. Mariano served in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific as the general medical officer and medical department division head. Mariano’s distinctions include being the first woman in the military to be appointed White House Physician in 1992, and the first Filipino American to become a Navy admiral in 2000. In 2001, Mariano retired from the Navy to join the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona.

1979 Joseph Caravalho, Jr.

AAPI2023 Joseph Carvalho

In the list of names exemplifying the advancement of Military Medicine, Dr. Joseph Caravalho, Jr. would surely be near the top. Caravalho is a physician and retired major general of the U.S. Army Medical Corps. Born in 1957 to Chinese parents, Caravalho graduated in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Gonzaga University. Commissioned second lieutenant through the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps Program, he graduated with a medical degree from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences School of Medicine and was commissioned as a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps. For more than 30 years, he served in various leadership positions, including Commanding General of the Southern Regional Medical Command and Brooke Army Medical Center, the Northern Regional Medical Command, the Army Medical Research and Materiel Command at Fort Detrick, Maryland, Army Deputy Surgeon General and Deputy Commanding General (Support) of the U.S. Army Medical Command and ultimately, the Join Staff Surgeon — the chief medical adviser to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Today, he is the president and CEO of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine.

1981 Colin Chinn

AAPI2023 Colin Chinn

After graduating from Johns Hopkins University with a bachelor’s in public health and obtaining a master’s degree in epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, retired Rear Adm. Colin Chinn was commissioned into the U.S. Navy. He completed medical school at the Medical College of Virginia through the Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship Program earning a doctorate in medicine. Chinn served for 38 years in clinical, academic, and executive medical leadership roles including the Department of Defense Joint Staff Surgeon, Director of TRICARE Region West/Pacific, and the Defense Health Agency Director of Research & Development. He retired from active duty in 2019 as a Rear Admiral (Upper Half). In 2022, Chinn was appointed to the DOD Defense Health Board. He credits the legacy of sacrifice by generations of Asian Americans before him for making it possible for his and future generations of Asian Americans to succeed in any endeavor.

1982 Eleanor Valentin

U.S. Navy retired Rear Adm. Eleanor V. Valentin was commissioned in the U.S. Navy Medical Service Corps in 1982 as a lieutenant junior grade. She ascended the ranks quickly holding positions in the U.S. and Japan, then becoming director for Administration at Naval Medical Clinic in Pearl Harbor in 1994. In October 2000, Valentin became the director, Regional Operations, in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Health Affairs) TRICARE Management Activity. In 2009, she was promoted to Rear Admiral and became the 16th director of the U.S. Navy Medical Service Corps, making her the first female Medical Service Corps officer to obtain the rank of flag officer, as well as the first female to serve as Navy Medical Service Corps director. She was the second Filipino-American woman to achieve the rank of Rear Admiral.

1983 Yeu-Su Margaret Lee

AAPI2023 Yeu-Su Margaret Lee

Chinese-born Yeu-Su Margaret Lee paved the way for women in surgery and the military. But first, Lee had to pave her way through a tumultuous childhood. Despite losing three siblings to disease and enduring massacres during Japan’s occupation of China, Lee excelled academically. She emigrated to the U.S. in 1955, attending Harvard Medical School on a full scholarship. Leading surgical teams in several American university hospitals, Lee developed a global reputation as top surgeon and educator. This led her to Tripler Army Medical Center as chief of surgical oncology. In 1990, she volunteered for a tour of duty as surgeon in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. Following the war, Lee was promoted to the rank of colonel and awarded the “A” Proficiency Designator — the highest level of professional accomplishment within the Army Medical Department.

1984 John Cho

U.S. Army retired Brig. Gen. John Cho is a graduate of the United States Military Academy, West Point, N.Y., and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md. He completed residencies in general surgery at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Colorado and cardiothoracic surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Cho also completed subspecialty fellowship training in pediatric and complex adult cardiothoracic surgery at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN. He is a 2008 graduate of the U.S. Army War College where he received a master's in Strategic Studies. In 2013, Cho became the first Korean American to reach the rank of brigadier general in the Army active component.

1987 Thomas Burklow

AAPI2023 Thomas Burklow

The Korean-American kid from Kentucky didn’t fully embrace his Korean roots until adulthood. Over time, U.S. Army retired Col. Thomas Burklow realized how deeply his Korean heritage propelled his 30 years of service in Army medicine. Earning a bachelor’s degree in 1983 and medical degree in 1987 with academic honors, he completed postgraduate training in pediatrics at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He served for 30 years in Army medicine, including as Chief of Pediatrics from 2003 to 2011 at Walter Reed, where he was actively engaged in undergraduate and graduate medical education program development and management. Dr. Burklow’s military career culminated as the Director for Healthcare Operations and the director for population health programs. He deployed to Saudia Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq in the course of his military career. In 2017, Dr. Burklow joined the National Institutes of Health where he now serves in directing the Medical Research Scholars Program, the country’s premier in-resident medical student research program.

1990 Raquel Bono

For nearly three decades, U.S. Navy retired Vice Adm. Raquel Bono, a board-certified trauma surgeon forged her distinction as a highly respected naval officer. She is the first woman surgeon in the military to hold the rank of vice admiral. As the former Director of the Defense Health Agency, Bono led a joint, integrated support agency that enabled all branches of the U.S. military medical services to provide health care services to combatant commands. She integrated an unprecedented $50 billion worldwide health care enterprise comprised of hundreds of facilities that provide care to 9.6 million military beneficiaries. With dozens of military health leadership positions and just as many honors, Dr. Bono is an inspiration and role model for all surgeons — especially women surgeons everywhere.

1990 Guy Kiyokawa

U.S. Army retired Col. Guy Kiyokawa’s 29-year career in the United States Army features leadership positions at all levels of health care operations including clinics, community hospitals, regional medical centers, and regional medical commands. Kiyokawa ascended to the rank of colonel and retired from the United States Army in 2015. That same year, Kiyokawa became the Deputy Director of the Defense Health Agency, the first Hawaiian to hold the post. In 2021 Kiyokawa was nominated by President Biden to serve as assistant secretary for the office of enterprise integration where he advises the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and senior leaders in strategic planning, and in 2023 was named acting deputy secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

1997 Allan Espiritu

A native of Metro Manila, Philippines, Allan Espiritu emigrated with his family to California in 1981. He grew up with an interest in marine biology and dentistry. Inspired by his brother, Espiritu enlisted in the Navy in 1997 as a hospital corpsman. He qualified as a scout sniper, a master parachute jumper, and received special training in mountain warfare, jungle warfare, and Survival Evasion Resistance Escape. Using these skills, he served two combat tours in Iraq. Espiritu volunteered for duty with a Marine Explosive Ordnance Device Team while on his second tour in 2005. He was killed on a mission of detonating a roadside bomb. HM2 Allan Cundangan Espiritu was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star with Combat “V” in 2006.

1998 Annie Cichocki

Born in the Philippines, Annie Cichocki joined the U.S. military in 1998 as operations manager at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. A master’s degree in Military Strategic Studies led to her post as clinical operations manager at the U.S. Army Warrior Care and Transition Command. There, she created the Performance Triad 26-Week Health Challenge to help WCT personnel set healthier goals and establish U.S. Army guidelines regarding health issues of DOD personnel. Today, as Nutrition Service Chief, National Institutes of Health, Annie Cichocki directs professional dietitians and was instrumental in implementing lifesaving nutritional guidelines and protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic.

2002 Jonny Kim

AAPI2023 Jonny Kim

How did the Korean American child whose abusive father was killed by police in the family home become a Navy SEAL, combat medic, physician, and a NASA astronaut? The answer, in Kim’s own words: “To protect the people I loved that couldn’t protect themselves.” After high school, seeking to escape his tumultuous childhood, Kim enlisted in the Navy in 2002. SEAL training landed him as special operations combat medic to SEAL Team THREE Charlie Platoon in San Diego. He earned a Silver Star Medal, Bronze Star, and the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal. In 2016, he earned his medical degree from Harvard Medical School. Lt. Cmdr. Jonny Kim was selected by NASA to join the 2017 Astronaut Candidate Class. In 2021, Kim was selected to serve as the International Space Station’s Increment Lead for Expedition 65, where he still serves today.

Last Updated: October 30, 2023
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