JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas –
Brooke Army Medical Center designated May 27, 2021, to observe the culture and accomplishments of Asian American and Pacific Islander service members. This year’s theme was “Advancing Leaders Through Purpose-Driven Service” and highlighted the advancement of Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders within our military and civilian ranks.
Army Col. Michael Wirt, BAMC commander, noted that AAPIs are a diverse group of many cultures, ethnicities, races and languages, who trace their ancestry back to the Asian continent and the many Pacific islands of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.
“The American story as we know it would be impossible without the strength, contributions and legacies of those who have helped build and unite this country,” Wirt said.
According to the U.S. census, AAPI’s are the fastest-growing racial group in the United States. There are more than 40 different sub-ethnic groups in the AAPI population, and it could double from 20 to 50 million by 2060.
There are a number of AAPI trailblazers who laid a foundation for future generations of military and civic leaders. Below are a few examples of this ongoing legacy:
• Brig. Gen. Viet Xuan Luong, the first Vietnamese-born general flag officer in the U.S. military,
• Retired Vice Admiral Raquel C. Bono, the former director of the Defense Health Agency,
• Retired Gen. Eric Shinseki, 34th Chief of Staff of the Army,
• Vice President Kamala Harris, the first person of South Asian descent to hold the Office of the Vice President,
• 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit for its size and length of service, in the entire history of the U.S. Military. The 4,000 American-born Japanese men, who initially came in April 1943, had to be replaced nearly 3.5 times. In total, about 14,000 men served, ultimately earning 9,486 Purple Hearts, 21 Medals of Honor and an unprecedented eight Presidential Unit Citations.
At BAMC, there are a number of professionals with rich AAPI heritage, plying their trade with humility and pride.
Army Col. Thornton Mu is an associate dean for graduate medical education and neonatologist at BAMC. His parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s shortly after World War II and the rise of the Communist Party in China. Mu was born and raised in San Francisco, California – a city that is historically rich with a diverse, cultural population.
“My parents pursued higher educational opportunities earning college and graduate degrees,” said Mu, who grew up in a bilingual household, speaking both Chinese and English. His friends were as diverse as the city he grew up in, and they were less interested in the color of their skin and more inclined to talk about school, homework, sports teams, music, and food.
Early in life, Mu had little knowledge of his family’s societal struggles.
“As I grew older, my parents and grandparents shared anecdotal stories about who could live where,” he explained.
Earlier in the 20th century, there were parts of San Francisco that Asians could not live. His grandparents had lived in the U.S. and attended college in the 1920s, but went back to China because they were not eligible to become U.S. citizens due to federal laws prohibiting Asian immigrants from citizenship.
When Mu was in high school, he joined the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, where he met an individual who would become a large influence on his career path.
“One of my teachers was a retired World War II first sergeant who served with the 442nd Infantry Regiment,” Mu said. “'Sarge' was the first Asian American military service member that I met,” Mu explained. “He was a crusty infantry noncommissioned officer who cursed all the time; was a chain smoker, but also incredibly educated and even more so loved his students.
“Up to that point, I never learned in school about the detainment of Japanese Americans during that period in U.S. history, nor had I heard about the contributions of Asian Americans who fought valiantly in Europe at a time when their loyalties back at home were called to question and their families were living in internment camps.”
Mu, under the mentorship of his JROTC instructor and family, applied for and received a college ROTC scholarship. He went to Airborne school at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1993 where for the first time, his minority status was front and center. He experienced the mispronunciation and teasing about his last name to overt racist name-calling.
Despite the discrimination, Mu graduated as the top cadet in his ROTC class and entered active duty in the Army Medical Department as a Medical Services Corps officer. He applied for and was accepted to medical school on a health professions scholarship.
Mu remains optimistic that the climate within the military will continue to improve for AAPI service members and build upon the contributions and legacy of thousands of other Asian American service members.
Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” U.S. Air Force Capt. Khang Lu, BAMC otolaryngology, head and neck surgery resident, unknowingly took that first step when he chose the path of military medicine.
“When people ask me why I decided to join the military, I tell them I actually never thought I would when I was growing up,” Lu said. “It wasn’t until I was applying for medical school that I considered it.”
He was deciding between going to the University of California San Diego or the Uniformed Services University for medical school.
“When I got accepted at USU, I was excited to share the news with my family,” Lu stated. “I totally thought that becoming a doctor was a bigger deal than joining the military. But, for my grandparents, it was the opposite.”
Lu’s military roots run deep, beginning in a country in the South China Sea.
“My mom’s dad worked at the U.S. embassy, and my dad’s dad was a captain for the South Vietnam army during the Vietnam War,” he said. “When the war ended, both my grandparents’ families were evacuated to the U.S. and were refugees at Camp Pendleton.”
The Lu family always felt a great admiration for the U.S. military. It all came full circle when Lu was on a medical school rotation at Camp Pendleton, California.
“My family and I reflected about how incredible it was that they were once refugees at the base I was currently learning to become a doctor,” Lu said.
According to BAMC Command Sgt. Maj. Thurman Reynolds, there are roughly 70,000 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders serving in the United States military; and there are more than 300,000 living Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander American veterans.
“These Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders add to the immense diversity of the United States military," Reynolds said. “This diversity is the foundation of our strength.”