Maj. Gen. Suzanne Vares-Lum’s 34 year military career has taken her around the globe, but the Wahiawa native retired Friday on her home island of Oahu.
The first Native Hawaiian woman to become an Army general, Vares-Lum was an intelligence officer whose assignments spanned the Cold War to the Iraq War.
For the last five years Vares-Lum has worked at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command at Camp Smith, most recently as Mobilization Assistant to the Commander where she juggled both local and international issues — often simultaneously.
Gov. David Ige called her “a connector and collaborator who looks for synergies and paths to move the most complex relationships and challenges forward.”
“She has a genuine love and respect for people and service, and the belief that we all have something to contribute,” Gov. David Ige said Friday at her retirement ceremony.
Vares-Lum worked on land use issues around military facilities and leased land in Hawaii and the U.S. Pacific territories, heading military outreach and negotiations with state officials and community leaders.
She also coordinated with U.S. allies around the region as tensions rose with China and Russia. Hawaii is in many ways the center of many of those efforts, as service members and diplomats from around the world come through the state holding meetings and training exercises.
“Really, we are the crossroads of the Pacific. We’re the connector; we’re the gateway,” Vares-Lum said last week. “I picked up a used book written in 1830 of sailors coming through this area, identifying Hawaii as strategic. It’s just where it is.”
However, Vares-Lum said it’s not just the geographic location that makes it a hub for the U.S. military and its allies. “Because I’m from Hawaii, I would say it’s also our ability to bring cultures together, to understand cultural language in the background so that we can engage effectively in the region,” she said.
Like many Hawaiian service members, Vares-Lum comes from a family with a tradition of military service. Her father served in Vietnam and had a long career as an enlisted man on active duty, in the reserves and in the Hawaii National Guard.
“He definitely set an example for me,” she said. “And all my brothers all served, my sister was in the Air Force, she’s a retired master sergeant.”
Vares-Lum enlisted as a private in the Army Reserve and went to basic training at For Dix, New Jersey in 1986.
She then enrolled in the Army ROTC program at University of Hawaii Manoa and was commissioned as a military intelligence officer. She was stationed in what was then West Germany for three years. “It was my first time living away from home for a long time,” she said.
At the time women were limited in what they could do professionally in the military. She was assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division but was kept in desk jobs. She recalled not being allowed to have assignments or even be present at brigade-level offices or most combat units in “forward locations” close to Eastern Bloc forces.
But during the 1991 Gulf War some women were already finding themselves in combat. By 1993 the military partially lifted its “combat exclusion policy” to allow women to pilot combat aircraft. In 1994 then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin put out a memo rescinding the “risk rule” paving the way for women to take on assignments closer to the front line.
Vares-Lum later returned home and transferred to the Hawaii National Guard in 1993, eventually becoming the first woman to officially serve as a senior intelligence officer with the 29th Infantry Brigade in 1995.
“When I came into the 29th brigade, females were not allowed, they were not allowed by law to be assigned to an infantry brigade,” she recalled. “The law changed shortly thereafter.”
In 2004, Vares-Lum deployed with the unit to Balad, Iraq, where she established and ran the joint intelligence center in one of the fiercest battlegrounds of the U.S.-led war. On paper, neither she nor the intelligence soldiers she led were combat troops. In practice, their base regularly faced mortar and rocket attacks and her soldiers went on dangerous missions.
One of her soldiers, Sgt. Deyson Cariaga, became the Hawaii National Guard’s first casualty since 9/11 after a roadside bomb killed him during an intelligence gathering mission. For Vares-Lum, it was a sobering reminder of the costs of war. But Cariaga wouldn’t be the last. Hawaii Guardsmen have continued to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Throughout more than two decades of counterinsurgency missions, militants rarely conformed to defined battle lines, so women serving in “noncombat” roles frequently served alongside and took the same risks as their male counterparts.
The military has since opened up all positions to women who want them, something Vares-Lum said she didn’t think she would see before retiring.
“Seeing the first female infantry officer commissioned at the University of Hawaii ROTC program, that was phenomenal for me,” she said.
In Hawaii, Vares-Lum — who was promoted to brigadier general in 2015, then became a two-star in 2018 — has been preparing for the possibility of a different kind of war. INDOPACOM is the largest theater of operations spanning what Vares-Lum calls “Hollywood to Bollywood, polar bears to penguins.”
Locally she has headed negotiations and planning on hot button issues like the proposed renewal of the Army’s lease for the Pohakuloa Training Area, the Homeland Defense Radar – Hawaii and proposed improvements to the Navy’s fuel storage tanks at Red Hill.
She also played a central role in land negotiations and planning for the expansion of military facilities in Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas.
Fights over land, along with the legacies of war, colonialism and environmental damage caused by military training across the region have made some of the disputes particularly bitter and emotionally charged for Pacific Island communities.
Vares-Lum said that’s always on her mind when she interacts with communities. “I understand there have been mistakes made in the past,” she said.
But while conflicts between the military and indigenous communities are often contentious, Vares-Lum points out that many of these same communities are full of veterans and intergenerational military families.
“There’s been a disproportionate amount of those from this region who serve in the military and because of that tradition, and also the pride that comes with service,“ she said.
As Vares-Lum hangs up her uniform, she intends to stay in Hawaii and has formed a new company, Vares-Lum Indo-Pacific Consulting LLC, to provide expertise on the region and advance opportunities for women.
She also hopes to continue to bridge the gap between the transient military and local communities.
“This is the temporary home for many people for two to three years,” she said. “My mission has been to make sure that they understand that they’re part of it and when you come to their home you treat it like your home.”
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