May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and DLA counts among its ranks several leaders from this community. They recently talked about what led them to public service, how serving has enriched their lives and how the federal government can encourage more youth from AAPI communities to consider a career in public service.
Navy Rear Adm. Ron MacLaren is the director of the DLA Joint Reserve Force. As a youth, his goal was never to join the military, but his mother, who is from South Korea, pressed him to join JROTC and the ROTC in college. [See story.] He’s glad she did.
“What I realized is that being in the military or working as a civilian for the DoD or the U.S. government is doing something that’s bigger than yourself,” MacLaren said. “It’s the immense pride and self-satisfaction you get being part of such a large, complex organization and the amazing things that our bigger team is able to do for society.”
Army Command Sgt. Maj. Charles Tobin has also spent his entire career of 32 years in the military — currently as the senior enlisted leader to DLA. “The military is the best thing that ever happened to me,” Tobin said. “My greatest satisfaction is to be able to be a mentor and teacher to our culture and be able to give back to the community.” In addition, “I'm honored to serve side by side with the men and women who sacrifice their lives for our nation,” Tobin said.
Army Col. Yee Hang is the director of Land Supplier Operations at DLA Land and Maritime in Columbus, Ohio. He belongs to the Hmong ethnic group in Laos, whose military members, including his father, helped the CIA rescue downed American pilots during the Vietnam War.
Tobin and Hang both noted that the family focus of Asian American communities is a value the military shares — a fact young people should remember as they weigh their career options. “Samoa, like many other places, is built around the family,” Tobin said. “And the military is one big family.”
So respect for elders is a value Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders grow up with, Hang said. “We are very family focused,” he said. “We place a lot of value on elders and respect.”
Much like the military, Hmong families greatly value group honor. “We shy away from doing anything that will bring shame to the name clan,” he said. Conversely, “If something good happens for one person in clan, the whole clan celebrates, because it brings honor to the whole clan.”
MacLaren noted the leadership training that comes with military service. “Whether or not you stay in as long as I have, the key thing the military does is invest in your professional development,” he explained. “Not just medical or law school — but as an individual. It invests a lot of time in training you to be a leader, how to do critical thinking, build confidence, lead and be member of a team. How to think strategic versus near term. So regardless of whether you stay in as career, all those things are greatly beneficial to you in any career.”
Leadership is not a skill just for those who lead troops into battle, MacLaren emphasized. “I used to run hospitals in my civilian career, as a hospital CEO,” he said. “And I will tell you that regardless of whether you’re going to be doctor, lawyer or whatever chosen path, you’re going to encounter opportunities to work with groups of people. Whether you’re in a leadership position or not, that leadership training will put you in a positon naturally to be a leader and help formulate where the group needs to go.”
Despite all this, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are under-represented not only in the military but in civilian service as well. So a common theme among these leaders was that DoD could address this by emphasizing the diverse career opportunities available in the military or in civilian service.
“There are tremendous ways you can contribute across the spectrum,” MacLaren said. “From the development of weapon systems and new platforms, as we work to back cyber terrorism, those are highly technical areas. And one of the things I point out to Asian American audiences is highly technical fields, huge way to be involved without necessarily wearing the uniform."
MacLaren reflected on misconceptions about military service that might cause some not to pursue this career. “As I talk with young Asian Americans, they don’t really view military as career path because they think it’s all drill sergeants and physical work. But the emphasis is also on engineering and technical areas, and we need folks with that expertise who can help evolve the military,” he noted.
Hang suggested that more public outreach could educate young people about these opportunities. “For the past three years, I’ve gone out regularly to speak with young Hmong people at a charter school in Wisconsin, he said. “And every time, I tell them, ‘These are all these things you can be in the Army — doctor, lawyer, computer specialist. It’s not just carrying a gun and fighting in combat,' " Hang said. “If there’s one thing DoD can do, it’s to educate the youth that you can do things other than being the typical ground-pounding soldier.”
He noted the influence adults can have. “My first desire to enter West Point was from my high school physics teacher. Her son was a West Point cadet at time, always telling stories about what he was doing. That sparked my interest in going to the Academy.”
Similarly, Tobin’s own son needed to look no further than his father for the inspiration to become an Army officer — which he did in 2014, after receiving his education at the U.S. Military Academy.
And for the military to succeed in the future, it will need many more young people with new skills and new ideas, Tobin said.
He was enthusiastic about what they have to offer. “I think this new generation is the next Greatest Generation,” he said. “It gives me a sense of pride to think about what they will give back to our country. ... Stay resilient, stay fit and remain vigilant.”
For more on Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, see the Department of Defense online feature pages.