NEWPORT, R.I. —
When Vice Adm. Raquel Bono was a child, she often wondered why her father worked such long, late hours. Her family had immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines when she was 6 months old so that her father could attend medical school at the University of Minnesota, and some years later he was working as a Navy surgeon.
One night, Bono waited up to see her father before going to bed and the two had a conversation that left a profound impact on her life, she told Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport’s workforce during a speech held on May 10, as part of the command’s celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
“He came home one night and I said, ‘Daddy, why do you work so long? When I grow up, I want to work at a hospital so I can see you every day,’” Bono said. “At the time, I didn’t know that girls could be doctors, but my father told me that I could be whatever I wanted.
“My conversation with my father really kick-started who I was and helped me to fulfill the opportunities that my parents gave to me,” said Bono, who is the first female, medical, three-star admiral in the history of the U.S. Navy, and serves as the director of the Defense Health Agency.
“I thought that was really cool until I went to get my shoulder boards; I had to get them special ordered,” Bono said. “I told them, when you special order them, don’t quite break that mold because I’m hoping someone behind me can use them too.
“I also take a lot of leadership from what I’ve learned as a parent, wife and colleague.”
Leadership and mentorship were at the crux of Bono’s all-hands talk, which was presented by NUWC Newport’s Equal Employment Opportunity, Diversity and Inclusion Office. From that early conversation with her father, Bono was inspired and has had a distinguished career in the Navy for more than 40 years.
In reflecting on her many years of service, Bono admitted that she could not have envisioned this path when her career began. “When my father told me I could be whatever I want, I had no idea that not only would I get to train as a trauma surgeon, but that I could also get to be a three-star admiral,” Bono said. “I had no idea what was in store for me. I can tell you, every step of the way eventually prepared me for the job I have today.
“You may not know exactly where life is going to take you, but you want to be prepared as you make your way on your journey.”
Leadership and mentorship played a critical role in that respect for Bono, and she shared some of the lessons she has learned along the way.
The ability to align in a direction that a group collectively wants to go and then to make things happen are two critical aspects of leadership, Bono noted while acknowledging the difficulties that process presents.
“It does make people uncomfortable, and the first thing that they’ll probably do is say no,” Bono said. “As leaders and mentors, you need to reflect on how you want to do it and how you are going to develop the skills to do that.
“As you look to your own leadership, help them develop the tools to create change in your environment, and then push forward within those lines of effort.”
An epiphany Bono had during her general surgery residency helped to illustrate this. At the time, she was the second female to enter the Navy program and the first to graduate. It is customary, Bono explained, for attendees to bombard the trainees in the operating room with a constant stream of questions to gauge their fundamental knowledge.
“I came out of there and was completely defeated,” Bono said. “I walked into the locker room and there was only one thing I could think to do; I was so overwhelmed, I got into a stall and I burst into tears.”
As she sat there in a stall in the women’s locker room, it occurred to Bono that her colleagues in the men’s locker room would have had time to talk about the case before they entered the operating room.
“Rather than make it about that, I thought, ‘what do I need to do to close the gap? If I’m going through this, who else is going through the same level of frustration? What can I do to make it better for [women]?’” Bono said. “I made a commitment to myself to try to make it easier for them. That’s a large part of what being a mentor is all about.”
A few years later, it was Bono’s turn to be the attendee who was grilling a trainee. Sure enough, after the surgery, she found the overwhelmed woman sobbing in a bathroom stall.
“I put my hand over the stall, said, ‘give me your beeper, take a few hours and come back when you feel better because what you need is time and perspective,’” Bono said. “I wish someone would have done that for me. I’ve oriented my career in knowing what I can do to make things better for people — even if it’s a moment for a quiet cry.
“I can be that safe harbor to vent. Sometimes, all you need to do is to be able to hear yourself out loud. I will listen to whatever they need me to listen to. What I’ve found is most people just need to talk out loud and get a few nudges.”
In addition to her experiences, Bono also noted that her family’s military legacy has shaped her views of leadership and mentorship. Her grandfather served in the U.S. Army and retired as a colonel, while her brother is retired Rear Adm. Anatolio B. Cruz III. Bono and Cruz III are the only siblings of Filipino descent to hold flag-officer rank simultaneously.
“As a leader and mentor, the most important thing is understanding that I serve a greater mission than myself,” Bono said. “My father wanted to make sure that we gave back to the country we adopted. I am here to serve others and understand how best to serve others so that they can make better things happen.
“When I see organizations such as [NUWC Newport] where you have the same attention to detail, it not only resonates with me, it also encourages me that this is the best model. It’s a hallmark of our military and Navy. We build our strength on knowing that we serve each other.”
These are lessons she has instilled not just in coworkers but in her children as well. Bono described a moment similar to the one she had with her own father when one of her daughters was 7 years old.
“I told her what it’s like to be a doctor and medical officer. We talked about what it’s like to meet people that need your help,” Bono said. “I also explained that as a naval officer, I serve our country, I am part of a group of Sailors — 300,000 across the world — and how important it is to be a part of the military.
“My daughter is dialed in on me, and that was one of my moments. She said to me when I was finished, ‘Momma, can boys be doctors too?’”
NUWC Division Newport, part of the Naval Sea System Command, is one of two divisions of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. NUWC Division Newport’s mission is to provide research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support for submarines, autonomous underwater systems, undersea offensive and defensive weapons systems, and countermeasures. NUWC’s other division is located in Keyport, Washington.