Photo: Suzanne Vares-Lum
Suzanne Vares-Lum is one of the Army’s 124 major generals, and the first Polynesian woman promoted to that rank. - Photo: Courtesy

If years ago you told Suzanne Vares-Lum she’d be the first female Pacific Islander promoted to Major General – a rank occupied by just 124 people in a pool of nearly half a million – she probably wouldn’t have believed you.

“There’s a certain type of person that does that,” she would’ve responded, “and I’m not it.”

At Washington Place last month, Vares-Lum was promoted during a ceremony attended by Gov. David Ige. One of her subordinates half-joked that before the promotion, Suzy was a friend, but now she’s intimidating. Such is the weight of the title she carries.

Vares-Lum, 50, grew up in Wahiawā, speaking pidgin and attending public schools. She also came from a broken home.

“Nothing has ever really been handed to her,” says her 20-year-old daughter, Diana.

Vares-Lum’s father had been a Vietnam veteran, so she spent her childhood watching documentaries about war and history. Fascinated by the courage soldiers possessed, she joined the Army Reserve at 19. Now, 32 years later, she credits much of her success to her upbringing. Growing up in places where you know your neighbors, in Wahiawā with her parents and Maui with her grandparents, Vares-Lum learned how to live in community.

“People just helped each other,” she says of the places she was raised. This sense of being in tune with the people around her has always informed her life and leadership.

“With her, it’s all about inclusion,” says Brigadier General Moses Kaoiwi, who has worked with Vares-Lum, on and off, since 2003. “It’s not about separation or competition, it’s not about trying to outdo the next guy. It’s about working together and it doesn’t matter who gets the credit. It’s about getting things done for the people of Hawai‘i.”

It’s Vares-Lum’s job to be relational. She plays a key role in the Pacific Command, developing diplomatic, economic and military relationships throughout the Pacific region. Respect for others, including for the environment and foreign nationals, guides her work.

“Us locals, we understand the Hilo culture is different from Pearl City culture which is different from Hawai‘i Kai which is different from Kapa‘a and Hanalei,” Kaoiwi says. “We pick up on all those nuances and we respect everybody. You need that kind of a broad social framework when it comes time for international relationships because you can pick up on things that someone else might not understand. I’m happy for Hawai‘i that Suzy is where she’s at. Her sitting there is going to benefit the state.”

Whether she’s training other soldiers or weighing in on statewide emergency response plans or sitting in high-level meetings, Vares-Lum is intentional about listening. She’s also been intentional about seeking out mentors.

“You’ve got to have many counselors before you wage war, whether that’s a spiritual war or a physical war,” she says. “When I became a captain, I realized I needed mentors in my life. I realized I needed to be willing to be taught by other people.”

Some leaders focus on success and power; others, on the people they’re leading. People matter to Vares-Lum; she finds time to text her daughter in California every morning and still wears a bracelet bearing the name of a soldier she lost in Iraq more than a decade ago.

Because Vares-Lum invested in community, it was there when she needed it; this was especially evident when she was deployed to Iraq. In 2004, before phones had Skype and FaceTime apps, Vares-Lum shipped out with the 29th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. She and her husband, Courtney, had a five-year-old, Diana, and a three-year-old, Connie. Courtney, a commander on the Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team, was busy. Connie had tuberculosis. Diana was breaking out in eczema.

“I was super stressed,” says Diana, who’s now pursuing a degree in medicine at the University of California Santa Barbara. “A lot of parents tell their kids that Mom or Dad is going on a business trip. My mom was going to war. I’d be sitting in class and thinking about whether or not she was alive.”

Vares-Lum had to trust that her kids would be okay for 18 months without her and that the experience would make them more resilient; such is the struggle of a military mom. She now advises younger women navigating through similar feelings.

“I just told this young Major yesterday, ‘Don’t give up, you can do this. It’s hard to be away but you know what happens? They get stronger,’” Vares-Lum says. “Sometimes my daughter would say to me, ‘Mom, when the other parents were in the bleachers at soccer, basketball, volleyball games, I looked around and you weren’t there.’ Now she’s older and saying, ‘I’m proud of you, Mom. I’m proud of what you did.’”

Vares-Lum entered Iraq as a senior intelligence officer leading a battalion that had never been led by a woman. (Until 2015, women were officially restricted from holding combat positions.) She dealt with the discrimination in the same way she has over the course of her career: by picturing condescending people as dogs running alongside a car.

“If you stop whenever they bark,” she says, “you never get where you’re going.”

This is a lesson she speaks about at local conferences and one she impressed upon her girls.

And while Vares-Lum now wears two stars on her shoulders, meaning she ranks third from the very top, she is also humble, deflecting all credit and praise, acknowledging a faith in God that has carried her through.

“I didn’t realize until I got older, like, wow, my mom’s really high up there,” says 16-year-old Connie.

Diana agrees: “She’s really just a local aunty. My friends call her aunty and then when they learn about her job, they go, oh my gosh, really? That’s what she does?”