As a Japanese American woman serving as a doctor in the Navy for 35 years, Cynthia Macri’s experience was one in which she was her own best ally.
“The thing about minorities and women in the Pentagon, there’s too few of us. You wouldn’t randomly walk into somebody that’s your rank and race,” said Macri, 64. “If I wanted to talk to another Navy female captain in the Pentagon, I’d have to make an appointment, because she would always be like an EA [executive assistant] working for one of the big higher-ups. The likelihood of running into someone of the same race and rank was even more remote.”
From the beginning of her military career in 1979, Macri said, she encountered discrimination, forcing her to rely largely on her own competence to succeed and earn respect. “Back then, with so few women, it seemed at times that we were our own worst enemies and we could not necessarily trust each other,” she said. “If you’re a woman and a minority race, you’re a double threat. If you are competent, then you’re a triple threat.”
A third-generation American
Both sets of Macri’s grandparents emigrated from Japan to Hawaii in the early 1900s. Her paternal grandparents worked as educators until World War II, when she said her grandfather was arrested by the FBI. Initially, he was set to be deported, but because he had six U.S.-born children, he was instead taken to an internment camp in Louisiana. Meanwhile, Macri’s father, grandmother and aunt were sent to an internment camp in Arkansas.
By the end of the war, they had all been sent to the Tule Lake Relocation Camp in California, where they waited to return to Hawaii. Macri’s maternal grandparents were poultry farmers and considered vital to the economy on Oahu, which prevented them from being detained during the war. Her parents met at the University of Hawaii and married. However, in 1951, Macri’s father got drafted for the Korean War, and spent 18 months as an interpreter for the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Service.
Ultimately, her parents moved to Minnesota, where she was born. But Macri did not spend much of her upbringing in the U.S. Her father began working for the Ford Foundation, a global humanitarian aid group, which sent the family abroad to countries including Egypt, Pakistan, Mexico and India.
Twice, she said, she was evacuated to escape wars — the Arab-Israeli Six Day War in 1967 and the war between India and Pakistan in 1971.
“The only thing that mattered when we were evacuated was that we were American. I had no idea that there was any discrimination stateside,” she said. “In Pakistan and Egypt, that was my identity. How could I not be recognized as American, right?”
Joining the Navy
Having Japanese American parents with advanced academic degrees, Macri said she had little choice but to go to college.
“I didn’t even know there were jobs available that didn’t require a college education.”
While attending Lehigh University as an undergraduate, she struggled academically with material she hadn’t been exposed to at her international schools. At the same time, she was learning how to live in the U.S. She wondered about everyday things — was it safe to drink the tap water? — and she wasn’t accustomed to people driving on the right side of the road.
“I used to race motocross and drive all over Islamabad on my motorcycle, but you drove on the other side of the road,” she said. “I kept thinking, maybe I’ll get hit by a car because I’m looking in the wrong direction.”
Although she was at an engineering school, Macri had always wanted to be a doctor. She applied to medical school at Temple University and was accepted. But she was from a family of five siblings, and money was tight.
During her senior year, her college hosted a job fair that would mark the beginning of her military career.
“The only thing I really knew was the military. The U.S. Marines were security guards at the American Embassy and were a big part of our high school life,” she said. “So I went over to the Marine Corps table, and they said, ‘So you want to be a doctor? We don’t have doctors. You’ll have to join the Navy.’ So, I said, ‘OK,’ and went over to the Navy’s table.”
She received a scholarship to pay for her medical degree and was commissioned in 1979.
Encountering harassment, discrimination
At Officer Indoctrination School, Macri said, there was “rampant sexual harassment” of women who were, for the most part, new to the Navy as ensigns (a junior rank). They were encouraged by higher-ranking male officers to attend parties and drink heavily, Macri recalled. She said she avoided the parties because she didn’t drink alcohol.
Macri got her first of many bad FITREPs (a type of performance report) because, she said, she was not social enough. But thanks to being an avid soccer player, she could run faster and do more push-ups and sit-ups than almost everyone else during training, which helped her to graduate.
She moved on to an internship at a Navy hospital, but because there were so few women, there were no gender-specific on-call rooms. That, she said, resulted in additional harassment.
“If you’re sleeping in the call room bed, some guy would think it was okay to jump into bed with you. I’m not kidding,” she said.
It wasn’t until 2004, 25 years into Macri’s Navy service, that the Department of Defense formed a task force to address sexual harassment and assault in the military.
RAND estimates that 1 in 16 women and 1 in 143 men experience sexual assault within the Department of Defense.
On top of that were the “snide and rude remarks” she encountered about women in the operating room: “ ‘We don’t need any women’; they say it right to your face.” Macri said she was foiled every time there was an assignment she wanted, and she was deemed not qualified to be an orthopedic surgeon, work with the Marines, or be a doctor on a ship. In the end, she became a gynecologic oncologist.
Macri said she was undeterred by all the obstacles she faced. “You just have to become more competent than them. When people aren’t doing their job and you call them out on it, you’re at least saving someone’s life. So I did that with regularity and earned a reputation for being, truthfully, a great surgeon.”
Paying it forward
Macri’s résumé includes a variety of academic and executive leadership roles at the National Naval Medical Center, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Naval Medical Education and Training Command, and the Uniformed Services University. But her most validating moment before leaving the Navy in 2013 was when she was assigned to her final position: special assistant to the chief of naval operations for diversity. In that capacity, she was able to voice her thoughts on the benefits to the military of embracing a diversity of races, ethnicities, genders and life experiences.
Because she encountered relatively few Asians in the military when she served, let alone Japanese Americans, Macri felt the greatest camaraderie with her teammates on the Navy’s women’s soccer team.
“I was literally 15 years older than the next oldest person. Yet some of those young ladies have kept in touch with me,” she said. “Since 1999, I’ve had absolutely great conversations with some of them. So I feel like I’ve been good at mentoring younger people to help them make good decisions.”
Today she is a member of the executive council of the Japanese American Veterans Association (JAVA). In addition, she serves on the Maryland Governor’s Commission on Suicide Prevention, the Maryland State Veterans Commission, the Montgomery County Veterans Commission, and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Advisory Committee on Women Veterans.
She is also a volunteer physician at the Chinese Community and Cultural Center in Montgomery County, Maryland, providing COVID shots to older residents. She also conducts outreach for Asian Indians for Community Service because she spent so much time in Pakistan in her youth and identifies with that community.
"The Asian community is multilayered. There are a lot of immigrants who are first-generation, multigenerational households, and varying numbers of people from each country having variable skills, traditions and needs,” she said. “None of us shares a distinct culture, language or religion. So it’s harder to come up with a single solution to answer an overarching problem within the community.”
JAVA will cosponsor “The Go for Broke Spirit,” a photo exhibit featuring images of Japanese American veterans who served during World War II, by Los Angeles-based photographer Shane Sato. The exhibit will be at the Japan Information and Culture Center in Washington, D.C., from June 9 to July 22, 2022.
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.