Hawaii Gov. David Ige recently noted that Maj. Gen. Suzanne Vares-Lum made history as the first Native Hawaiian female to attain the rank of general officer in the Army.
Her 34 years in the Army — leading up to her retirement in a ceremony last week on the fantail of the battleship Missouri — charted the increasing inclusivity of the military.
“We lead the way, really, in diversity and inclusion in our nation, ” said Vares-Lum, who most recently was mobilization assistant to the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command on Oahu. “In fact, we’ve seen it over the last century, paving the way to integration for all races and women (having a seat ) at the table.”
Vares-Lum, who joined the Army Reserve as a private first class in 1986, said that if anyone had told her she would work for two four-star admirals at Indo-Pacific Command, “meeting the most incredible people around the world, I know I would not have believed you.”
Both Ige and Adm. Phil Davidson, head of Indo-Pacific Command, pointed to Vares-Lum’s strong connection to Hawaii and ability to make an impact in her home state and around the Pacific as part of a U.S. military that’s historically rooted in the islands.
Davidson said that after he took command about three years ago, he charged Vares-Lum with direct management of advancing Indo-Pacific Command’s “deep and enduring ” relationship with the Aloha State. Since then she’s taken on wider engagement duties across the region.
“She has inculcated a common sense of respect for the land, the people and the culture of Hawaii, ” Davidson said.
Ige said Vares-Lum has been a “trailblazer ” who is a “Wahiawa girl at heart and a proud public school graduate of Aiea High School.”
She also is a 2017 recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, “one of the nation’s most prestigious awards given to individuals who have shown outstanding commitment to serving the nation while exemplifying the values and spirit of America, ” Ige said.
Vares-Lum said in an email that her mother is from Tokyo and her father, who grew up in Paia, Maui, was of Native Hawaiian, Chinese, Tahitian, English and Portuguese descent.
Her father, who retired as an Army sergeant first class, met her mother while he was stationed in Japan.
Vares-Lum, in her retirement remarks aboard the Missouri, pointed to the high level of U.S. military service in the region.
“A study of recruiting data found that Pacific Islanders—and of course that includes our Native Hawaiian community—join the U.S. Army at a rate of 249 % higher than any other ethnic group, ” Vares-Lum said. “I believe this stems from the connection the Department of Defense has to our islands, and the strong desire to protect it and our families.”
She added that “Hawaii is my home, in the middle of this vast Pacific Ocean, the blue continent, and it is the crossroads of the Pacific, a place that upholds the values of aloha, that brings together the diversity of cultures, languages and traditions nested in Hawaiian values and American values.”
Vares-Lum, 53, a University of Hawaii graduate, spent most of her career in Hawaii but also was in Germany from 1990 through 1993 and deployed in 2005 to Iraq as the first female senior intelligence officer with the 29th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
Davidson said Vares-Lum was the first woman to perform the duties of acting Indo-Pacific deputy commander and acting chief of staff.
She’s been Davidson’s principal adviser on “homeland ” issues in Hawaii, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.
Her “relentless advocacy and engaging with government and civic leaders ” have paved the way for critical systems including the Guam Defense System, a tactical over-the-horizon radar in Palau and the Homeland Defense Radar-Hawaii, Davidson said.
Vares-Lum helped with the development of “divert ” airfields in Tinian and Saipan, Davidson said, and established at Indo-Pacific Command a joint-use land board to facilitate retention and continued training at key areas such as the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai and Pohakuloa Training Area on Hawaii island.
The Indo-Pacific commander called Vares-Lum “one of Hawaii’s hometown heroes ” and said she is an “ambassador of awesome.”
Vares-Lum said she was “proud to announce ” that Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Mark Hashimoto, who hails from Honolulu, will replace her at Indo-Pacific Command.
The next phase of her life as a civilian includes Vares-Lum Indo-Pacific Consulting and a role as strategic adviser to the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii’s Military Affairs Council.
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