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"Making change for the better": Brig. Gen. Eveline Yao shares how she keeps her momentum of curiosity and sense of adventure

  • Published
  • By Maristela Romero
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs

Human connection is at the core of Brig. Gen. Eveline Yao’s 29-year career in the U.S. Air Force, a journey that began like many others - in a recruiting center, with a fresh outlook on life and an openness for new experiences.

Yao currently serves as the U.S. Transportation Command’s command surgeon and is USTRANSCOM’s Global Patient Movement Operations director. However, joining the Air Force, earning an appointment to the grade of brigadier general, and having an impact on people across the world was not a path that Yao envisioned in her earlier years.

In the summer of 1991, Yao was a third-year Michigan State University biochemistry graduate student, immersed in a research-based program. Despite excelling in the program, she did not feel connected to it.

“I decided that [research] wasn’t really for me. I wanted something more forward-facing with people. And so, I decided to go into medicine,” she said.

With a nudge from a friend in the U.S. Navy, Yao decided to pursue her medical degree while serving her country. She earned a scholarship through the Air Force’s Healthcare and Professional Scholarship Program, and graduated from the Pritzker School of Medicine, University of Chicago in 1995.

“I liked everything. I liked all kinds of specialties of medicine except surgery,” Yao said, reveling at the variety of medical practices she encountered.

Originally, she considered pediatrics, but following a rotation at Travis Air Force Base, California, she chose family medicine since it involved longitudinal care - caring for newborn infants to seniors - and fostering long-term relationships with the patients.

During her second residency in Aerospace Medicine, she completed a master’s degree in public health from the University of California, Berkeley.

In 2000 after four years in family medicine, Yao began her exhilarating medical career as a flight surgeon - providing patient care while traveling the world and meeting incredible people. In this role, she had to understand the unique demands of flying operations and adjust to flying in military aircrafts.

“I didn’t know if I could be a flight surgeon after flying a low-level air drop in a C-141 and becoming airsick,” she said.

Despite the initial concerns, she fully embraced her role supporting the Air Force in a National Defense mission.

A week after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and with less than 12-hours’ notice, Yao departed for her first deployment. She went to Uzbekistan as part of a global reach laydown team to open an air base in the southeastern city of Karshi-Khanabad.

“You learn to be resilient both physically and mentally,” she said. “At that time, we didn’t even know when we were coming home. [Eventually], I got over that fear.”

“When you can make changes that you can see are going to be executed and make things better, it’s a huge accomplishment. We instill the nation’s trust. They know that we will lift mountains to bring our service members home. And if they’re wounded, ill, or injured, we will take care of them.”

– U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Eveline Yao

Her positive mindset, curiosity to learn, and ability to take unique opportunities in stride stayed with her throughout her career. Yao has supported a range of missions including Operation Deep Freeze in New Zealand and Antarctica, along with taskings to 16 countries across the Middle East, Europe, and East and South Asia.

“It’s amazing. I flew all over the world,” Yao said. “I have flown in 18 airframes with over 1,300 logged flight hours, including combat missions. Of special note, I had the distinct privilege of flying around the world on the last C-141 mission based out of the McChord Air Force Base. We have the world’s greatest Air Force, and that fact has only been further cemented through my lived experiences.”

As her career progressed, Yao remained focused on her patients.

“Patients should feel genuine care and compassion from their healthcare team as we work to earn their trust through each interaction,” she said.

She was assigned to Yokota Air Base in Japan as the 374th Medical Group commander from January 2012 to 2015, then served at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, as the 96th Medical Group commander from 2015 to 2017. Regardless of the position, her goal has always been to facilitate safe and quality care for Airmen and their families.

“We held a hospital standdown [at Yokota Air Base] to enforce this message, and we launched the Air Force high reliability organization branded ‘Trusted Care’ at Eglin,” she said.

After Eglin, Yao served as command surgeon for U.S. Special Operations Command and now with USTRANSCOM. Moving into more senior leadership positions has enabled her to directly shape the operational mission and positively impact a greater number of people.

“When you can make changes that you can see are going to be executed and make things better, it’s a huge accomplishment,” she said. “We instill the nation’s trust. They know that we will lift mountains to bring our service members home. And if they’re wounded, ill, or injured, we will take care of them.”

With her years of service and numerous deployments across the world, Yao continues to cherish the guidance she received from past supervisors and leaders who have helped shape her career - an experience that has come full circle for her.

“I was accepted into my attached flying squadron as one of their own and learned many tenets of good officer-ship within that ‘family.’ Many of those flyers went on to be senior leaders,” Yao said, adding that her lifelong mentor of more than 20 years was her former deputy commander from McChord Air Force Base.

Though her career in Air Force medicine has been full of supportive individuals, Yao observed that there were fewer and fewer people who shared her cultural heritage, or simply looked like her, as she ascended the ranks.

“This is not military-unique, but the military is demographically male-dominated with a line-officer culture,” Yao said. “And as a petite, Asian, female physician, there were occasional challenges in ‘being heard’ but I earned the confidence of leadership through actions and effects.”

Her steadfast, people-first approach continues to ground her, especially in leadership positions where others now look to Yao as a mentor.

“The only thing you can really do is try your best and prove yourself to the community,” she said. “People also acknowledge and recognize when there is someone who looks like them in a position of leadership and it kind of gives them inspiration.”

As Yao’s career continues to progress, she attributed her connection with people as a key to her development.

“Surround yourself with people who want to do good, make things better, and most importantly, make you better than you thought you could be,” she said. “There is no greater joy than receiving a note, email, or text from an Airman, Soldier, or Sailor whom I have worked with letting me know that I somehow positively influenced their career or life. That’s why I do what I do.”