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Female Asian-American Navy Leaders, Mentors, and Trailblazers

The Naval History and Heritage Command has previously published essays about female Navy trailblazers. We shared the story of Commander Darlene Iskra, the first woman to command a Navy combatant ship, Fleet Master Chief April Beldo, the first African American female command master chief of an aircraft carrier, and the first female and African American fleet master chief for manpower, personnel, training, and education.

Here, we’re sharing the stories of five senior female Asian American officers. We asked them to share their stories of military service—what inspired them to join the Navy, their leadership philosophies, and what advice they would give to women who follow in their footsteps. All of the women joined between the years of 1993–2002—a decade of change in the Navy. It was during this time that women were first allowed to serve on combatant ships. They shattered glass ceilings while serving as officers, moms, and parental caregivers.

Captain Sylvaine Wong, Force Judge Advocate, Commander, Navy Installations Command

Captain Sylvaine Wong is the force judge advocate, Commander, Navy Installations Command. Wong, who grew up in Berkeley, California, remembers her father taking her to Navy Fleet Week in San Francisco every year.

Wong attended the University of California, Berkeley, where she majored in mass communications and political science. Her fascination with the U.S. Navy led her to write several articles about the service while in college, including one about the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps. Wong then went on to attend Columbia Law School. She stated in her application essay that she wanted to join the Navy upon graduation.

Three years later, Wong was deciding between two job offers. The first was with a highly paying prestigious New York City law firm. The second was with the Navy. When a friend asked Wong which job she would ever regret turning down, she immediately declined the private law offer.

Wong attended Naval Justice School in the fall of 2001—mere months after the September 11th attacks. Her first job was in Japan, but she delayed sharing that news with her parents, who were born in Japanese-occupied China in the 1940s. They immigrated to the United States decades later.

While stationed in Japan, Wong deployed with the USS Essex (LHD-2) to the Arabian Gulf in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. This deployment solidified in Wong’s mind that she made the right choice in joining the Navy. Her law school classmates were stuck in windowless offices researching mundane data while she provided humanitarian assistance to Indonesia tsunami survivors and stood watch on an amphibious assault ship in the Indian Ocean. Her next assignments included Norfolk and Washington, DC, serving as an aide to the deputy JAG. She then deployed to Afghanistan with a multinational NATO staff. While there, she had a family reunion with her cousin, U.S. Navy Commander Lynn Chow. Curious, I asked if Chow had influenced her decision to join the Navy. She sheepishly said, “no.” In fact, she didn’t realize that both were in the service until her dad mentioned it in passing one day—a few years after she had already been commissioned.

After Afghanistan, Wong attended Harvard Law School, graduating with a master of laws in international law. She went on deployment for the third time in 2011–2013, with USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

I asked Wong what her best experience was, and she replied, “my entire career.” She said each tour has folded into a larger cohesive picture—one that has led her to multiple deployments and opportunities not available to most lawyers.

Wong is a single mom with two children. Her eldest child was born while she was stationed in Naples, Italy, as the executive officer of the Region Legal Service Office. Her parents moved over 6,000 miles to help her. They joined her in Guam, where her kids learned to surf, and in Washington, DC, where they helped Wong teach her kids Cantonese.

At the end of the interview, Wong told me that she wanted her children to know her story; it’s one of multiple deployments, humanitarian assistance, service to country, and love of the Navy.

Commander Lynn Chow, U.S. Navy (Retired)

In 1993, Lieutenant Lynn Chow became the first female Navy gunnery officer aboard a combatant ship.

Chow graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in December 1990. She was on a Marine Corps Reserve Officers’ Training Corps scholarship, but had gotten injured, so upon graduation she was commissioned as a general unrestricted officer in the Navy.

Women couldn’t serve on Navy combatant ships in 1990 so Chow’s first job was as a CMS custodian in Korea. Soon thereafter, the policy changed, and in 1992, Chow volunteered to be part of the first wave of women to serve on cruisers, destroyers, and carriers. Assigned to the USS Joseph Hewes (FF-1078), Chow served as auxiliary and electrical officer and subsequently the ship’s gunnery officer.

The ship’s commanding officer was Commander Chris Kennedy. He was supportive of women being stationed on combatant ships. Per Chow, Kennedy viewed himself as a change maker. He didn’t baby the female officers; he expected them to be surface warfare officers, and held them to the same standards as their male counterparts.

Chow’s next duty station was the USS Ashland (LSD-48). She was the first woman to be stationed on the ship. Once again, she served as a gunnery officer. Chow then continued her trailblazing path by being the first female Navy officer to command a fleet combatant training center. She owned the gun range and proudly showed me photos of the facility.

I asked Chow if her parents supported her decision to join the Navy. The response was an emphatic, “no.” Her parents wanted her to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer; she had graduated from University of California, Berkeley, with an engineering degree. Chow’s grandfather was a member of Chiang-Kai Shek’s government. Her father served in the Taiwanese military as a conscript, so he didn’t understand why his daughter would volunteer for military service.

Chow’s eyes lit up when I asked what it was like to serve on the Joseph Hewes.

“Awe-inspiring,” she said. “The Navy trusted me, a twenty-three-year-old, with a multi-billion-dollar ship.”

With an impish grin, she shared her sea story of doing a hot turnover of the Joseph Hewes. The U.S. government sold the ship to the Taiwanese government in 1994. Chow gave the damage control presentation in Mandarin.

After 22 years on active duty, Chow retired in 2013. The women who participated in her retirement ceremony were all female Asian American U.S. Navy officers. Chow mentored many of them, sharing valuable leadership skills and lessons learned. Eight years later, Chow’s mentees are now mentors, sharing insights and encouragement with the next generation of Navy leaders.

CAPT Elysia Ng-Baumhackl, JAGC, USN, Afghanistan in 2012, during her turnover with her relief, CAPT Bill Boland. The rest of the group in the photo were members of the Afghan National Army's Capital Division Staff Judge Advocate Office:  the SJA,...

Captain Elysia Ng-Baumhackl, JAGC, USN, Afghanistan in 2012, during her turnover with her relief, Captain Bill Boland (second from right). The rest of the group in the photo were members of the Afghan National Army's Capital Division Staff Judge Advocate Office:  the SJA, Deputy SJA, three judges of the Capital Division Court, and members of the prosecution, defense, and investigation teams (courtesy of Elysia Ng-Baumhackl).

Captain Elysia Ng-Baumhackl, Commanding Officer, Region Legal Service Office Western Pacific

Captain Elysia Ng-Baumhackl is the commanding officer of Region Legal Service Office (RLSO) Western Pacific. She graduated from Queens College, City University of New York, with an undergraduate degree in East Asian studies and history. She then obtained her law degree from Columbia University.

I asked how a woman from Queens, New York, joined the Navy JAG program. No one in her family had served in the military. While the movie A Few Good Men had been a Hollywood blockbuster, she hadn’t seen the film. She confesses that since then she has since seen the film many times.

In the mid-1990s, the internet was limited, so when a law school friend told her about the program, Ng-Baumhackl visited the school’s career office and looked at public service career binders. She was intrigued that the Navy JAG Corps information flyer referenced not only a diverse range of career paths, but also international postings. Ng-Baumhackl visited an officer recruiter near the World Trade Center and drove three hours to Groton, Connecticut, for her interview with the nearest active-duty Navy JAG.

I asked if Ng-Baumhackl’s parents supported her career choice. “Yes,” she replied. Her Chinese grandparents fled the Japanese government in the 1930s and were living in Malaysia when her dad was born. Ng-Baumhackl’s dad immigrated to the United States and worked as a letter carrier. Although he was anxious about the distance, and the possibility of her being in harm’s way, he valued a government job with benefits and job security, so he hesitantly approved.

Ng-Baumhackl’s first duty station was in Bremerton, Washington. She was stationed there in 2001, when the airplanes struck the twin towers of World Trade Center, just across the street from where she had taken her commissioning oath in 1997. In 2005, she was stationed at Norfolk and deployed to Bahrain as a staff judge advocate with the Expeditionary Strike Group 2. Ng-Baumhackl then returned to Washington, DC, to work for the Joint Staff. While in this role, she visited Guantanamo Bay as part of the Walsh Report team.

In 2011, Ng-Baumhackl deployed to Afghanistan and served as a legal mentor to the Afghan National Army. She then served as the legal advisor for the U.S. 7th Fleet staff embarked on the USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19). Following that assignment, she was the executive assistant to the Deputy TJAG, legal counsel for the vice chief of naval operations, and legal advisor for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Ng-Baumhackl also obtained a master of laws degree at The George Washington University in national security and U.S. foreign relations law.

Since 2020, Ng-Baumhackl has been the commanding officer of RLSO Western Pacific in Yokosuka, Japan. It’s a bachelor tour; she left her family behind in the United States to allow her daughter to complete high school without disruption. Ng-Baumhackl’s husband, who she met while in law school, has been extremely supportive of her naval career, giving up his career to be a stay at home dad for many years.

I asked what her daughter thought about her military service. Ng-Baumhackl’s daughter was eighteen months old when she deployed to Bahrain, and six years old when she went to Afghanistan. With a smile that could be heard thousands of miles away, Ng-Baumhackl shared that her daughter sees only possibilities.

Ng-Baumhackl is currently the co-chair of the JAG Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. She volunteered for the collateral duty, stating that she wanted to make a difference. Ng-Baumhackl mentors junior officers, helping them shape their careers, which, as her daughter so rightly verbalized, are limitless and full of possibilities.

CAPT Ann Minami, JAGC, USN, at her 2014 change of command (courtesy of Ann K. Minami)

Captain Ann K. Minami, JAGC, USN, at her 2014 change of command (courtesy of Ann K. Minami).

CAPT Ann K. Minami, JAGC, USN, as a military judge, 2015 (courtesy of Ann K. Minami)

Captain Minami as a military judge, 2015 (courtesy of Ann K. Minami).

Captain Ann K. Minami, Circuit Military Judge, Northwest Judicial Circuit

Captain Ann Minami is a military judge. She grew up in Seattle and is an alumna of Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, Massachusetts. As a law student, she attended a career fair in New York City, and first learned that the military had lawyers. Being a kid from Seattle, she knew she wanted to be by the water, so she looked into the Navy JAG program.

Minami is the first person in her family to serve in the U.S. military. Her parents were born in Japan and immigrated to the United States in the 1960s. Seeing the opportunities America offered her immigrant parents inspired Minami to serve her country.

Her first tour was at the Navy Legal Service Office National Capitol, in Washington, DC, in 1994. During this time, the television program JAG started airing. Minami’s mom always told her to be careful because of the types of scrapes she watched Harmon “Harm” Rabb and Sarah “Mac” MacKenzie go through on television.

Minami served two sea tours. Her first tour was on board USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), as part of ship’s company. On her second tour, she was part of the strike group staff on board USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). She has sailed around the world during her deployments on these two aircraft carriers. On the Abraham Lincoln, she travelled across the Pacific Ocean, through the Strait of Malacca and into the Arabian Gulf. While on board Theodore Roosevelt, she travelled across the Atlantic Ocean, through the Strait of Gibraltar, and Suez Canal, returning to the Arabian Gulf.

She then returned to the states working as a JAG detailer in Millington, Tennessee. It was while there, Minami said, that she developed her passion for mentoring junior officers and sharing leadership lessons that she had learned over her career:

  • Leadership is Action, Not Position
    • Be involved, stay engaged, always train
  • Look Up and Look Down
    • Support Leadership, mentor subordinates
  • Make Good Decisions
    • Have confidence, use a process, just decide
  • Stay Humble
    • You chose a career of service

Minami then obtained a master of law degree at the University of Virginia. In 2009, she deployed to Baghdad. She worked at the U.S. embassy and served as chief, rule of law, U.S. Forces Iraq. Minami was always sensitive to the fact that her job was not to teach Iraqis about the value of the rule of law—as it was in that area—formerly Mesopotamia—that written law first emerged. Minami worked closely with the chief justice of Iraq. She even had the opportunity to escort the Iraqi minister of justice on his first ever trip to the United States. Minami found living and working in Iraq fascinating. She also loved that the tales of Sinbad the sailor often set sail from the Iraqi coast city of Basra.

Her next assignments included serving as staff judge advocate for the Commander, Submarine Forces U.S. Pacific Fleet and as commanding officer of RLSO Northwest.

In 2015, Minami became a military judge. Most judges—all judges really—had far more litigation experience than she had when she took the bench. Minami litigated during her first tour, but she didn’t have a career in the courtroom. To prepare, Minami shared that she bought evidence tapes and listened to them while running. Today, she is one of the longest serving Navy military judges. One of the highlights of her time on the bench was the opportunity to preside over courts-martial conducted at sea on board an aircraft carrier.

Like Captain Wong, Minami considers her entire career one great adventure. Several years ago, Minami thought she would have to retire early when she became the primary caregiver for her octogenarian parents. But, the Navy took care of her, and gave her an opportunity to be stationed close to home so she could continue to serve on active duty while helping her parents. Minami is forever grateful for the opportunities, adventures, and consideration she has been given throughout her career in the U.S. Navy.

Captain Lia Reynolds, JAG Corps Senior Detailer

Captain Lia Reynolds is the JAG Corps senior detailer stationed in Millington, Tennessee. She graduated from Columbia University with an undergraduate degree in architecture. She then attended graduate school at the University of Hawaii’s School of Architecture. Two years into the program, Reynolds decided to change careers and applied to law school.

A law school friend at the University of Hawaii introduced Reynolds to the military judge advocate community. He was a Marine Corps officer and recommended that she apply to the Navy JAG Corps program. Reynolds followed his advice and became a commissioned officer in 1997. Shortly thereafter Reynolds attended her high school reunion. She shared her job title and her friends mistakenly thought she’d joined the crew of the TV show JAG.

Reynolds first job was the at the Trial Service Office West, Branch Office Lemoore, California, where she provided legal advice to 16 fighter jet squadrons and other tenant commands on the air base.

She was next stationed on the Carl Vinson. She was on deployment with the carrier on September 11, 2001. Her next duty stations included Joint Interagency Task Force West, in Alameda, California, and the Trial Service Office in Yokosuka, Japan. In 2006, she was the deputy executive assistant to the JAG. She then earned a master of laws degree in international law and national security at Georgetown University in 2008.

She was the legal advisor to the strike group commander on the USS Nimitz (CNV-68). After this tour at sea, she served as commanding officer of the Naval Legal Service Office in Naples, Italy. In 2012, Reynolds reported as the fleet judge advocate for U.S. Third Fleet. In 2013, she was selected to be the special assistant for legal matters for the Secretary of the Navy—the Honorable Ray Mabus.

Her next job was as deputy force judge advocate for U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. She took command of the RLSO in Hawaii in July 2016. Since 2019, she has served as the senior detailer for the JAG Corps.

Reynolds grew up in Hawaii and attended Punahou—the same high school as former President Obama. During the interview, Reynolds shared that her dad was drafted during the Korean War. He subsequently obtained a mechanical-engineering degree from the University of Southern California. Upon graduation, he moved to Hawaii and got a job at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, working the graveyard shift so that he could surf during the day.

Reynolds’s maternal grandfather was born in Shanghai, China. He moved to Japan when he was eleven. Later he met and married a Japanese woman. Reynolds’s mother, the youngest daughter, was born in 1939, in Japan. The family lived in Shanghai during and immediately following the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II.

Reynolds’s mom was a flight attendant in the 1960s for Japan Airlines and British Airways. She met Reynolds’s father while vacationing with her father in Hawaii. I asked Reynolds what her parents thought about her career. She shared that her father had hated lawyers. Initially, her mom didn’t support the decision either.

But her mom’s opinion changed after she had the opportunity to see naval officers at work firsthand. Shortly after the USS Greeneville (SSN-772) collided with the Japanese fishing vessel Ehime Maru in 2001, the Navy convened a court of inquiry to investigate the incident. Reynolds’s mother provided logistical and managerial support to the team of contracted translators who supported the Navy’s efforts. Mrs. Reynolds was impressed by the respectful manner of the inquiry, high level of intellectual rigor applied to the investigative process by the admirals of the court, and the judge advocates advising the court. This gave her a clearer understanding why her daughter had chosen to work for the Navy.

Reynolds made the decision to stay in the Navy twenty years ago this September. She decided after witnessing the events of 9/11, while aboard Carl Vinson. She’s had a career that’s been intellectually challenging and fulfilling. But, it wasn’t one that was planned. When Reynolds decided to make a career change in the 1990s, she literally flipped a coin. One side was law school. The other side was civil engineering. Law won the toss and Reynolds is eagerly awaiting what comes next.

Naval History and Heritage Command extends its thanks to Captain Wong, Commander Chow, Captain Ng-Baumhackl, Captain Minami, and Captain Reynolds. Collectively, you have served more than 120 years on active duty and NHHC is honored to share your stories of service, and commitment, to the United States.

—Denise Krepp, NHHC Director’s Action Group

Published: Tue Feb 07 09:31:10 EST 2023