From Welfare Mom to Navy Medical 'Detective'
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Apr. 4, 2000 At age 18, Linda A. Murakata was a single parent fighting the stigma of being on welfare. At the end of each month, she never had enough money for food or the bare necessities for herself and her infant daughter.
Desperately trying to rise above this bleak and demeaning existence in hopes of providing a better life for her child, Murakata turned to a source passed down from generation to generation beginning with her grandfather, a Buffalo Soldier. At age 22, she enlisted in the Air Force.
Poverty and rough times couldn't thwart Murakata's unwavering belief in herself and ironclad desire to succeed. She had the pride, fortitude and intelligence to escape her limited situation and garner a life of distinction and success. Having spent four years in dire poverty, she was proud and anxious to move off the welfare rolls and into a secure and protective environment.
Murakata is now a successful medical doctor and Navy commander, a potent symbol of strength, perseverance and endurance. She works at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
Born in Manhattan on July 9, 1950, she's the oldest of three children of a Chinese father, Harry Wing Lew Seto, and an African American mother, Mary Hazel Gillespie Murakata, widow of a Japanese American, James Murakata. Her mother, a cook, had two daughters with Murakata.
Her father died when she was five and her mother moved to Long Branch, N.J., to be closer to Murakata's grandmother in Eatontown, N.J.
Providing for five young children wasn't easy for Murakata's mother, who earned a living taking in laundry and cleaning, and cooking in white folks' homes. She later worked as a cook in various restaurants, hotels and spas, Murakata said.
Working several jobs at one time, her mother had little time for nurturing, Murakata noted. There was never any talk about college or plans for the future because there was no money -- the immediate concerns were how to pay the rent and keep food on the table.
"We were basically on our own and raised ourselves," said Murakata, one of two siblings who graduated from college. With the help of school loans, her brother, Anthony Lew Seto, graduated from Trenton (N.J.) State College in 1973 with a degree in computer technology.
With no real direction in life, Murakata managed to finish high school, but not before running into trouble. "I was in my third month of my senior year at Long Branch Senior High School when my mom kicked me out of the house for skipping school," she said. "I was taken in by my grandmother and graduated from Monmouth Regional High School in Shrewsbury, N.J."
On Oct. 11, 1968, a few months after graduating from high school, she gave birth to her daughter, Kelly. The baby's father joined the Marine Corps and left the area immediately.
"He never gave the baby a cent for support or gifts of any kind," she recalled. "I was not allowed to put him on the birth certificate as the father, either."
Jobless with no husband, Murakata went on welfare before she left the hospital. Several desperate months later, she was so anxious to get off welfare that she rushed into a mismatched marriage to an older man.
"He presented himself as a successful businessman, but was actually a hotel night desk manager," she said. "After about a month of marriage, he was arrested for writing bad checks."
On her own again and back on welfare, Murakata was able to get a job as a secretary using the business skills she learned in high school. She worked for about three years at an intermediate care facility, the Witmer House Inc. in Long Branch.
Murakata said working for the black-owned facility was the starting point for her awakening into self-esteem, respect and pride as an African American woman. Her boss encouraged her to take a college accounting course, which she did.
"From this first taste of success, I discovered that I could no longer be content in a dead-end secretary job," she said. She devised a plan to move ahead in life.
Coming from a family with a long military history, she saw the armed forces as a vehicle to success. In August 1972, Murakata took her first step toward success by joining the Air Force under her married name, Linda Chisolm. She took basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and ground radio operator schooling at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. While working at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., she met and married a staff sergeant named Cardona and changed hers again.
When her four-year tour of duty was up in 1978, Murakata was faced with the option of re-enlisting or getting out of the Air Force.
"Since I almost had enough college credits to get an associate degree, I decided to get out and go to college full-time," said Murakata, who earned a bachelor's degree in biology in 1981 with a minor in chemistry.
Since the GI Bill was only enough to pay her tuition at Montclair University, N.J., Murakata covered living expenses by joining the Coast Guard Reserve in 1979 to supplement her husband's income. She was stationed at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, N.Y., and on Governors Island from 1979 to 1982.
It was during her junior year of college that Murakata considered applying to medical school. While she was working as a pharmaceutical company summer hire, her supervisor pushed her into applying to medical school.
"I never thought I was smart enough to become a doctor, but she kept telling me that I was as smart as any doctor she knew," she said.
After starting medical school in 1981, Murakata discovered she had no time for Coast Guard drills and left the service to dive into her studies. She also divorced her second husband.
The commander graduated in 1985 with a degree in medicine from the University of Medicine and Dentistry at the New Jersey Medical School in Newark, N.J. She returned home to Long Branch to do her residency at Monmouth Medical Center. She finished four years of anatomical and clinical pathology and a year of internal medicine in 1990.
Murakata discovered a liking for pathology during her internship.
"You get constant 'stroking' to your ego when you are faced with a difficult case and then are able to make a diagnosis," she said. "It's like being a detective and solving a mystery. I feel the same tingle of excitement and anticipation every time I open a new case."
Murakata said she never thought she would serve in the military again, "Then along came a Navy medical recruiter who promised me the 'world' -- a job at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington -- and that was an offer that I could not turn down".
The doctor also said her life revolves around the number 3: she's the third of five children in her family; the third generation to serve in the military; she's worn three military uniforms -- Air Force, Coast Guard and Navy; and she's had three careers, as an executive secretary, Air Force radio operator, and now medical doctor.
In addition, she currently holds three staff positions in three different departments at the Institute of Pathology - - staff pathologist in the Department of Hepatic and Gastrointestinal Pathology, staff pathologist and officer in charge of the POW registry in the Department of Environmental and Toxicological Pathology, and an associate editor for institute's Center for Scientific Publications.
In 1992, Murakata established the Afrikasian Scholars Foundation Inc. and paid out of pocket for scholarships to teen minority mothers and fathers who enrolled in a college or other higher education after graduating from high school. She awarded as many as seven scholarships in a single year, and after receiving non-profit status, was able to solicit donations through the 1995 Combined Federal Campaign.
The name "Afrikasian" is derived from Murakata's African American and Asian heritage. In addition to the scholarships, Murakata served as a mentor and role model to the young parents. The foundation soon created a mountain of paperwork that Murakata could no longer handle -- she said the organization still exists, but has been dormant several years.
Though she sometimes longs for the lifestyles of her civilian counterparts, Murakata said she thrives at the institute and can't be lured away from the military.
"I enjoy being in the military again and really love my job," she said. "I plan on staying in and hope to retire when I'm an admiral -- just kidding."
Her daughter, Kelly, is a histotechnologist at Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, Md., and is graduating this May from Montgomery College in Silver Spring, Md., with a degree in nursing. She and her husband, Army Staff Sgt. Damian Randolph, are stationed at Fort Meade, Md. The couple and their daughter, Corinne Anastassia, 12, are scheduled for a three-year assignment at Misawa Air Base, Japan, starting the end of May.