Living the American dream: Paying it forward

  • Published
  • By Kenneth Abbate
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

According to former President Harry S. Truman, “America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.” That is a belief U.S. Air Force Capt. Mason Zhang, 60th Diagnostics & Therapeutic Squadron inpatient pharmacy chief, holds very dear to himself and his family’s cultural background.  

Born March 21, 1993, in Portland, Oregon, Zhang graduated from David Douglas High School in 2011. Following high school, he continued his education at Oregon State University, where he received his bachelor’s in microbiology, master’s in business administration and doctorate in pharmacy. According to Zhang, he developed his strong sense of determination and work ethic from watching his father’s struggles.  

“From an early age, my father instilled in me the values of hard work, freedom and what a privilege it is to live in a free country,” said Zhang. “Inspired by the dedication of my father, I joined the Air Force when I was 27. I saw it as the perfect alignment: an opportunity to apply the skills I’ve acquired while attaining my doctorate and a chance to serve the nation that had offered so much to me and my family.” 

Zhang’s father, Guo, is originally from Guangzhou, China and moved to the U.S. after losing everything in the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. Guo arrived in America with nothing but the clothes on his back. Rather than succumb to despair, he embraced the opportunity to rebuild his life. Soon after, he was joined by his wife, Hu Chu Wen, and together they began to pursue the American dream. 

"His difficult journey to America made my father truly appreciative of the opportunities that came in America," said Zhang.  

Persevering through adversity, his parents eventually owned and operated a small restaurant where he said he learned the values necessary to succeed.  Zhang and his sister, Mandy, grew up in the back of the restaurant, while his parents ran the restaurant in the front. Eventually, the cultural and language barriers proved insurmountable, and the restaurant shut down. Despite struggling to make ends meet, his parents never seemed bitter.  

"Growing up with a language barrier was extremely difficult, but the sacrifices made by my parents in the hope of a brighter future allowed me to pursue the higher education that they were not able to receive,” said Zhang. 

After finishing his doctorate at OSU, he began to work as a civilian pharmacist until an emotional moment in 2020 changed his outlook.  

“I remember watching in anguish as the nation experienced hardships,” said Zhang. “This ignited a fire within me to serve the country that gave so much to my father and the rest of my family." 

Despite all the accolades and the financial security his civilian job offered, he knew he would not feel fulfilled until he could give back in a manner that would benefit and defend a country that had done so much for him and his family.  

"My family initially questioned my decision to leave my stable job, but their mind quickly changed after they understood my initiative," said Zhang. “Today, my family has taken pride in my service and professional accomplishments. The positive changes in the community fuels me to strive for excellence in all aspects of my service. Knowing that I am making a difference, not only in the lives of my patients, but our nation as a whole, drives me to continue.” 

Zhang commissioned into the U.S. Air Force Biomedical Sciences Corp shortly after deciding to join and has served nearly four years. He is extremely proud of his service, noting he could never imagine the impact he could make so early on in his career. 

"As an American, I feel a deep sense of duty to protect and serve my country,” he said. “The opportunities I’ve received drive me to give back and enable others to achieve the same successes that I’ve experienced. Full of gratitude, I look forward to continuing my service for a country that has afforded me and my family many opportunities to thrive."