NOTE: This article also appears in All Hands, the magazine of the U.S. Navy.
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and we’d like to celebrate by interviewing one of the Defense Logistics Agency’s top leaders, Navy Rear Adm. Ron J. MacLaren, director of the DLA Joint Reserve Force. As director, MacLaren ensures DLA’s reserve component is trained, ready to fulfill operational requirements and fully integrated into the DLA team.
MacLaren was born in Seoul, South Korea, but was raised in Mexico, Peru and the Panama Canal Zone. He graduated from the University of Southern California with a bachelor of arts in economics and holds a master’s in business administration from Auburn University. He received his commission as a Supply Corps officer through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in 1979. He has served in leadership positions both in the military and as a civilian, serving most recently as director of DLA’s Joint Contingency Acquisition Support Office.
1. Why did you decide to join the Navy?
To be brutally honest, I had no intention of joining the military. While in high school, a student had the option of selecting either gym class or the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. My intention was to take gym class; I was very active in sports and I wanted to keep my hair long (as that was the fashion of the day). My mother, using her Asian logic, said no. She said I needed more structure and discipline and that JROTC would be “good for me.” Kicking and screaming to no avail, I entered the JROTC program.
Well, my mother was right. While I was not enthusiastic at first, I slowly came around. During my senior year, I was selected to be one of three company commanders. This led me to apply for college ROTC scholarships as my mother — again, using Asian logic — indicated that, in order to “value” my education, I would be responsible for paying for college. And not going to college was not an option. It resulted in my commissioning as an ensign and the start of my career.
So there you have my “why I wanted to join the military” answer. Why do I encourage others to join? I encourage others to join because the military has taught me life lessons and brought me skills that have served me well in my civilian career as well. Yes, I was a “reluctant” volunteer. I thought the military was the drill sergeant yelling at the recruit and doing pushups. While there is a physical side to the military, there is a strong intellectual side as well. The military invested heavily in my mental development: leadership training, critical thinking development, confidence building, short and long term strategic thinking — what many businesses would like to have in their employees. The U.S. military trains to these things at all levels.
And whether you decide to be a “lifer” or pursue a civilian career — or do as I have done, combining a successful civilian career as a chief executive officer with a military reserve career — the military provides training and the skills development that will be there for the rest of your life and make you more successful and a better person.
Not everyone will have a mother like I had, who had the foresight, the perseverance and the grit to make sure that her son made the right decisions. The military is a great place to get super training and to help mold your character as you make your way through life.
2. Who are the role models or mentors that have influenced you, or helped guide you?
Obviously, my mother was a great role model and mentor to me. Others I would include in that category would be retired Navy Capt. Rob Hendrickson and retired Rear Adm. Ryland Percy. They took me under their wing and taught me the value of developing and taking care of your subordinates. They instilled in me that excellence was not optional but mandatory in everything that I did, both in the Navy and in my personal life.
3. Which past assignments are the most memorable to you, and why?
My most memorable assignment was as the commanding officer of Navy Cargo Handling Battalion 12. While being in command is arduous, stressful and high operational tempo, the leading of sailors doing real-world missions and seeing them totally exceed your expectations is a super high that is indescribable.
4. Can you share a story about someone who has influenced or challenged you to become your best?
On my first active duty assignment as an ensign assigned to the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), I was very frustrated with the assistant supply officer. I can remember vividly sitting with Cdr. Bracchi in the supply officer’s stateroom for a counseling session on what my future plans in the Navy were going to be. At that time, I was definitely getting out. He provided me the perspective that no matter where I go, there will be bosses, coworkers and subordinates that would frustrate me. He gave me the insight and challenge to recognize those situations and manage them. In doing so, I would be a better person and more valued asset to the organization.
And it definitely influenced me to stay in. With just shy of 37 years of service, I am the last member of my ROTC graduating class from the University of Southern California still serving.
5. May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. What does being an Asian American leader in the Navy mean to you? Is there someone from this community who has influenced you, or who has a story that is interesting to you?
During my Navy career as an Asian American, I did not have any Asian American leaders to look up to or follow. They were non-existent in the Supply Corps. I have been told that I am the first Korean-American admiral in the Navy. I’m not sure if that is true, but nevertheless, I hope I have been a role model for other Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to emulate. I never thought I would make lieutenant, much less rear admiral. I didn’t think about it. I strove to do more than required for less money and to finish before the deadline. That has served me well. And the Navy has served me well in providing the professional development that helped me to succeed.