Leo Tanaka ’96

In high school, Leo Tanaka ’96 didn’t see himself as a team leader. “I don’t think I was ever Mr. Popular,” he said. “I swam a lot, so school was studying and swimming.” Although he later served as swim captain in 12th grade, as a new sophomore at Lakeside, Tanaka recalls eating in the locker room during lunch periods. This image stands in contrast to the fact that, for almost twenty years, Tanaka served as an Air Force pararescue surgeon. 

Surprisingly, Tanaka didn’t major in a STEM subject in college, but in Asian Studies with a minor in Asian American Studies. His life goal has always been to impact the world, and his interest in Asian American activism allowed him to do so. But he also discovered another way to positively affect others: medicine. 

Inspired by a Seattle swim team member who joined the Marines, Tanaka decided to apply to the nation’s only federal medical school after college. His non-STEM major actually assisted his application: “Medical schools appreciate an individual who’s well-rounded as opposed to just ‘science, science, science,’” he noted. During medical school, he remained connected to his heritage and interests, serving as the co-chair for the Asian Pacific American Medical Students Association’s national conference.  And his humanities background allows him to relate to patients today. 

As part of the Air Force, Tanaka first served as an F-16 doctor. Because doctors in the Air Force must understand the pressures pilots undergo during flight, both literal — 9Gs of force — and figurative — extreme stress — Tanaka flew in an F-16 airplane and even dropped bombs on range targets in Korea. He then served as a pararescue surgeon (the doctor in a helicopter during emergency retrieval) during his follow-on tours.

The allure of military medical service, for Tanaka, came from the profession’s opportunity to give back to those in harm’s way. The job is more similar to that of an emergency room doctor than a plastic surgeon, meaning that Tanaka can immediately assist his patients; oftentimes, his team directly performed procedures on troops in the air. 

However, those serving must continually relocate to assignments all over the country, which can be hard on kids and spouses. But the constant travel exposed Tanaka to a diverse range of opinions and beliefs as well: “Moving around broadens your understanding of the world. You can understand the other side if you live in various areas with various outlooks. But it requires the right mindset and the right kind of individual.” 

Eventually, though, the military lifestyle became too hard for his family; Tanaka decided to leave the Air Force behind. He is currently completing a fellowship at the University of California San Diego in Undersea and Hyperbaric medicine, a niche specialty that uses pressure and oxygen to alleviate the after-effects of multiple diseases, including diving injuries, carbon monoxide poisoning, and “eye strokes.” 

Lakeside, Tanaka believes, asked him to explore his interests: “As a Lakesider, you have hundreds of opportunities: take advantage of them,” he said. “Regardless of whether you go to a top-tier college or not, or decide to work for a Fortune 500 company or not, these are opportunities that I don’t think you would be able to take advantage of elsewhere.” 

However, Tanaka found the strict military environment to be different from Lakeside’s atmosphere of independent thinking and creative problem-solving. “You get a little bit of indoctrination in the military: you like orders; you follow orders,” he said. Commands in the Air Force, which can often be life or death, must be followed to a T. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t be a free thinker,” he added.

Military medicine is not about money and success, but about making profound personal connections: “You realize very quickly as you go on in your life that it’s not about the material things that you accumulate, but the relationships that you have,” Tanaka said. The military is a place for teamwork; members of a unit must work together to succeed. In contrast to his first year at Lakeside, Tanaka pushed himself to become a leader during his military service, but his triumphs were never his alone: “Success, whether it be small or big, if anyone says they did it by themselves, it isn’t true,” Tanaka said. Success is always “based upon the help and understanding of others.”