Brig. Gen. Ruth Wong, U.S. Air Force, ret., is a mentor who remembers her mentors. Her career journey is one she shares to inspire others, male and female, to show them the doors that can open through military service and the lifetime of support veterans can expect after discharge.
“There were people in my career, both as a young lieutenant and even as a senior executive as a colonel and a general officer, who really helped me,” says Wong, director of Los Angeles County Military & Veterans Services at historic Bob Hope Patriotic Hall. “A major I worked with when I was a second lieutenant said to me one day, ‘I think you have the right stuff, and you need to think about making the Air Force a career.’ I thought about her words, and the words of some of my other mentors. Their words encouraged me to keep me focused on the mission, excel in everything that I did, and keep me moving forward.”
On Jan. 18, Bob Hope Patriotic Hall welcomes “The Greatest Legislation: An American Legion Centennial Salute to the GI Bill” multi-media display for a two-month installation. The exhibit could not be a better fit for the recently revitalized, 1926-built veterans memorial building, once the tallest structure in Los Angeles. Nearly 50,000 Los Angeles County veterans and their families receive services, from mental health counseling and disability claims support to cooking classes, each year. It is also the home base for two American Legion posts. And it could not be a better match for Wong, a paid-up-for-life member of The American Legion who used the GI Bill to propel her career as a nurse, combat officer, health-care administrator and director of veterans services in the nation’s second largest city.
She recently spoke with The American Legion Magazine.
How did the GI Bill help you?
When I first went in the Air Force, I had just graduated from a three-year diploma nursing program. After serving about four years, I decided to finish my education. I enrolled part-time in college and worked in the military full-time. A year later, I separated from the active-duty Air Force and used my GI Bill. I got married, came here to Los Angeles, finished my baccalaureate degree and from there pursued a graduate degree from UCLA. Both of those degrees enabled me to advance not only in my civilian career but in the military, as well. I became a military reservist in an aeromedical evacuation squadron after I finished my education. I am thankful to those people who set up the GI Bill many, many years ago to enable me to advance both in the civilian sector and the military sector.
How important did you, as an officer, find the GI Bill as a recruitment incentive?
I think it has a big effect. I was in a unit that was looking for the best and brightest medical people to serve. As we recruited individuals, we would tell them about the GI Bill, and they were very excited about the possibility of serving and completing their education. Most of them, especially the enlisted people, did not have funds to go to school. They were not only able to serve their country, but they were able to go to school because of the GI Bill. It was a significant tool to get people interested in the military and stay in the military.
What led you to serve in the Air Force, yourself?
I was a senior in nursing school when the recruiters came to talk to new graduates about the wonderful military career opportunities. So, I joined the Air Force. I began my career as a second lieutenant and quickly became a charge nurse within three years, meaning I was moving up the ranks. At one point, I decided I wanted to be a flight nurse, so I completed flight-nurse training. As a fully qualified flight nurse during Operation Desert Storm I was deployed to serve in the Middle East and was selected as an aeromedical evacuation flight commander in the United Arab Emirates. We flew intra-theatre missions on a C-130 aircraft, transporting patients, both ill and injured, and took them to a hub where they were further triaged – either taken to Europe or to a local facility – for medical care.
How did wartime service in Desert Storm influence you?
As a troop and flight commander, I was concerned about the health and safety of my troops especially protecting them against weapons of mass destruction.
You may recall, we were threatened daily by the use of chemical weapons. So, everyplace we went and everything we did revolved around having our chemical gear with us. We had to carry the chemical gear from place to place and on and off the aircraft. The first several weeks of the Gulf War, we received notice every evening that there were incoming SCUDs and to don our chemical gear, wearing it eight to 10 hours each night. The most important thing I learned from that experience was that we need to take care of ourselves and each other. I prayed every night that everyone would be able to go home safely. We were able to do that. This experience changed my life and instilled a sense of pride in that the military trains us well.
What were some of the difficulties of patient care in the Desert Storm combat theater?
The conditions, especially in that environment… I’ll give you one scenario: we were flying at noon one day, and we had a particularly bad sandstorm. The sandstorm was so severe, we couldn’t see the landscape when we opened the back of the aircraft. I knew there were patients coming onboard, but I couldn’t see them. It was so sandy and windy, and our aircraft could take off and land on unimproved runways. It could take off and land in some really hazardous situations. So, I was very grateful that day we had that aircraft and the people who were well-trained to take care of everything, especially the safety and care of our patients.
How well prepared were you for service under fire?
It’s kind of a funny thing. When I was over there, I got letters from home. Each and every letter said, ‘We know you have been well-trained. We know you can do it.’ That meant a lot to me. Sometimes you think, ‘Am I doing everything I need to do? Do I know everything I need to know?’ And the answer is ‘Yes.’ We had the best training. We had the best equipment. And we had the best people to do the mission.
When I came back from that experience, if anyone would say anything negative about our military, I was the first to say, ‘You’re wrong. Let me tell you how it really is. I was there, and I know what it takes to overcome a challenging situation.’
How did your career evolve from that point?
After Desert Storm, I was offered an opportunity in Washington, D.C., to be the Chief Nurse Executive at the Readiness Center at Andrews Air Force Base. What that enabled me to do is to reach out to 100 medical units throughout the United States ensuring that personnel were best trained and qualified for contingency operations. I solidified my administrator skills. I was able to take all those opportunities and talents I had learned to run Patriotic Hall as well as the Department of Military & Veterans Affairs. Those leadership skills you learn in the military translate very easily to the civilian sector. If I had not had the staff work I did in Washington, D.C., as well as the administrative experiences, it would have been more difficult for me. But it was a wonderful fit, so when the CEO from Los Angeles County called me and asked me to be the department director, I was up for the advancement and the opportunity.
What goes on at Patriotic Hall?
Patriotic Hall is a veterans memorial building. It was built in 1926, just after World War I. It was a meeting place for all the veterans in the community. Veterans needed a place to go to so they could talk about their experiences, support one another, do some networking in terms of finding jobs, getting services, anything that military members cherished and missed when they left military duty. Today, Patriotic Hall is a one-stop service center. Veterans and family members come here to get services like VA benefits, compensation, education benefits, veterans home loans, employment services, training opportunities… in fact, we are opening up an America’s Job Center of California, which is going to be a wonderful employment opportunity for our veterans and family members. Veterans and families come here to get the full complement of services. They are very grateful to us because our veterans service officers are very knowledgeable in the questions they need to ask and the paperwork that needs to be done. They file claims for them and really enrich the quality of life for our veterans.
Even a culinary school?
About two years ago, one of our county supervisors, Hilda Solis – she was President Obama’s Secretary of Labor – decided to come back to California and run for office to the county board of supervisors. She visited Patriotic Hall, and when she saw the commercial kitchen, her thought was ‘jobs for veterans.’ She said, ‘You know, this would be a wonderful opportunity for veterans to learn how to cook.’ So, we formed a partnership with Los Angeles Trade Tech College, as well as the supervisor’s office, and started the program last year. We did two mini-programs – just to acquaint veterans with how to prepare food, but that wasn’t quite enough. They wanted more. So, we suggested that the college develop a curriculum that would incorporate cooking. We just graduated the first class this year – a 184-hour cooking program, where veterans and their family members learn not only how to cook, but how to prepare food, create different food products, putting things together – and the great thing about it is that at the end of the course, they are given a certificate that enables them to go into the food industry and get a job.
Patriotic Hall is seen as something more than a service center, correct?
People say to me, ‘Where do you work?’
I say, ‘Bob Hope Patriotic Hall – it’s the big building at the intersection of the 110 and the 10 freeways, downtown.’ And even if people have never been in this building, they know it. Interestingly, I have a lot of people tell me, ‘My dad brought to this building many years ago because he was in The American Legion. He would bring me here just to see what it was like.’ So, it is a symbol. It is something that has grown throughout time. Now, we are rebranding it.
Several years ago, we closed the building since the board of supervisors gave us $50 million to renovate it and improve the infrastructure. Now, it’s a showpiece for veterans in the community. Everyone loves to come here. Every veteran who comes here tells me they are honored to have this beautiful tribute to them and other veterans who have served. They are very happy to see that the county cares enough about them to keep this building dedicated to veterans and their families.
Is there any truth to the ghost stories?
I have not witnessed ghosts, but I have had several people tell me they have heard voices, have seen figures .... But I haven’t seen it, personally.
What about Patriotic Hall makes it a good venue for a display about the GI Bill?
We have veterans come here from all corners of Los Angeles County. We even have people come here from all over the southern California area, just to see the building. Many families come here, with their children, because they want them to see the military history featured. I think it’s a wonderful thing that we are going to have this special exhibit. We’re going to have a lot of people come through this building and see it. Last year alone, we had 44,000 come through. A lot of people will be interested and excited to come and see the exhibit.
How do you see The American Legion’s role evolving at Patriotic Hall and in Los Angeles County?
I think The American Legion is definitely a leader, not only in this building, but a leader in the community. Every year, when they install a new (commander), we have a huge welcome reception and dinner, so they are very well known here in Los Angeles County, and they are definitely recruiting new members, which I know is a big thing right now for a lot of the organizations. But I feel The American Legion is definitely on the right track. Because of all the things that they do.
How did you become involved with The American Legion?
I joined four or five years ago. The American Legion was the first group of people I met when I became director of this department. They warmly welcomed me. They actually went to the board of supervisors and told them that they needed me to be the department director. I am forever grateful to them because they really took me on, as a family member. I am the first female director of the department, so that was especially important to me to lead the way for other military women and veterans. I am very happy to be a member of the organization and even recruited my spouse, a veteran, to become a member. Even to this day, they always include me in any events going on in the community. And they come by my office, any time, just to say hello.
You have also distinguished yourself as a voice for women veterans. How have perceptions changed about gender since you joined the Air Force?
I think the most interesting thing when I first came into the Air Force was that men would ask me, ‘Why did you join the Air Force?’
And I would say, ‘Because I wanted to serve my country and to practice my profession.’ I have always maintained that position. When I was stationed in Washington, D.C., it took some adjustment. My husband and I had been married for almost 15 years, and we talked about my assignment in Washington, and I said to him, ‘How do you feel about this?’ He was not going to be able to come with me on the assignment. He was going to stay here on the west coast, and I was going to the east coast. So, we made the decision together and decided my move was best for our family, and for my career. When I got to Washington DC, I actually had people say to me, ‘Your husband let you come here?’
I would say, ‘Absolutely not. My husband and I decided together that this was best for my career.’ So I think, in terms of what I first faced in the military and even later on in my career, we need to change the way we look at women serving in the military. When I first entered the military, my goal was to be the best nursing professional and advance in my military career. I am fortunate and grateful to accomplish my goals and because of this, I’ve become a champion for other women in the military and in the civilian community. We have come a long way in the military, but even now, in 2017, we still don’t have a woman on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We still don’t have women in some of the specialties where women would like to be. It’s evolved a great deal, but we have a way to go.
What advice do you, as a mentor, give women today, regarding military service?
I tell women that they can have it all. That was something one of my chief nurses early on said to me. That’s what I tell women now. Now, I am an ambassador for the military, and when I see a woman and she says, ‘I am not sure what to do with my life.’ I say, ‘Think about the military. Even if you don’t want to make it a career, even a few years in the military, will help you set the direction where you want to go. It’s going to open a new horizon. It’s going to help you grow.’
Jeff Stoffer is editor of The American Legion Magazine.