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NEWS | May 31, 2024

Hawaii Guardsman Finds Success in Aviation, Infantry Journey

By Christopher Hurd, Army News Service

WASHINGTON - Maj. Gen. Kenneth S. Hara was just settling into his new role as the adjutant general of the state of Hawaii, having taken over the position a few months prior, when he got a call from the governor’s office in March 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic was starting, and the governor wanted Hara to be the incident commander for the state’s response.

“I knew nothing about pandemics,” he said. “And in my mind, I was thinking, ‘No way, not me,’ and then out of my mouth comes, “Yes, sir! When do I start?”

The governor told him he started that day and to get ready for a press conference. Hara embraced the challenge, just as he’d done his entire career.

“The things I learned [during this assignment], oh my gosh,” he said. “When I was a lieutenant, did I ever think I would be doing things like this? There’s no way.”

Hara grew up in Hilo, Hawaii, with his parents and three older brothers. He spent most of his time surfing, fishing and enjoying the island’s scenery. His father worked full time with the Hawaii Army National Guard as a battalion commander.

As a kid, he dreamed of becoming a helicopter pilot. He saw an aircraft in the sky one day and was captivated by its ability to hover.

One by one, his brothers joined the National Guard, and one even became a pilot, which fueled his dream even more. However, after seeing her first three sons join, Hara’s mother was not so keen on the idea.

“She kept telling everyone, ‘You aren’t taking my baby, he’s not joining the Guard,’” he recalled. “So, Dad never brought it up.”

One evening when he was a senior in high school, he went up to his father while he was watching TV and told him he wanted to join the National Guard. A huge smile came across his father’s face.

“I’ve never seen him smile like that,” Hara said with a laugh.

The next day, he was talking to a recruiter. Because he wanted to be a helicopter pilot, Hara’s father persuaded him to sign up as a mechanic to understand the aircraft.

He shipped off to basic training in 1984 as a private before heading to Fort Novosel, formerly Fort Rucker, Alabama, for utility helicopter repairman training.

“I learned a lot and I loved it,” he said. “It definitely kept fueling my desire to be a pilot.”

He came back to Hawaii as a part-time Guardsman, drilling with his unit, doing his job and living what he described as a pretty simple yet exciting life.

A few years into his career, his father took him and his brothers to dinner. They talked about their lives and what their units were doing, and their father proceeded to scold them for their unit’s wrongdoings.

Hara told his father he was only a private first class and that wasn’t his responsibility. His father didn’t care because it was still his unit. That’s when Hara decided he was ready to take charge. A month later, he started working on his commission.

He was selected and went through officer candidate school in 1987. The training pushed him to his limits.

“It was very, very challenging,” he said. “I was constantly thinking I wasn’t going to make it, but I didn’t want to shame my family name.”

While he was there, his instructors knew he wanted to be a pilot and would constantly test his resolve. During every meal, they would yell his name and ask if he still wanted to be an aviator. He replied, “Sir, yes, sir!” and sat down.

Just before graduation, he picked his top three career choices: aviation, intelligence and infantry. He got infantry.

He called his dad wanting to know if he had anything to do with the selection and sure enough, he did.

“It was a bait-and-switch,” he said laughing. “[He knew] I wanted to go to flight school.”

His father explained that the infantry was the backbone of the Army and that he should first become an infantry officer to understand what the Soldiers on the ground needed. This would make him a better aviator, his father said. He reluctantly agreed.

He became a platoon leader and learned what he could about the needs of the infantry Soldiers before submitting his aviation package. He was selected and went through Initial Entry Rotary Wing Training, where he earned his wings.

He flew UH-1H Hueys as a section leader for the 451st and 452nd Aviation Detachments in Hilo.

“Getting accepted into the Army’s aviation program and attending the school was a dream come true,” he said. “Although my aviation career [lasted] only a few years, I still dream about flying helicopters.”

In September 1991, he was driving back from his brother’s house and instead of going straight like he normally would, he made a wrong turn and went right. He noticed his former infantry commander running down the side of the road and decided to pull over for a chat.

The commander asked if he applied for the active Guard position with the S3 Air, 2nd Battalion, 299th Infantry Regiment. He said he didn’t know about the opening. The commander urged him to apply and told him that applications closed that day.

Hara made a U-turn and went to speak with his father. The position was for human resources and meant Hara would be moving away from aviation and back into the infantry world. A simple wrong turn now led to a defining moment in his career.

“If I never made that right turn, I never would’ve known that opportunity existed,” he said. “My whole career would’ve probably been different.”

He applied and was selected the following month. He stayed on the infantry side of the National Guard for the rest of his career as he made his way up the ranks. After accomplishing his goal of becoming a pilot, he had new aspirations of becoming a battalion commander like his father and going to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Johnson, Louisiana.

In 2004, the 2nd Battalion, 299th Infantry Regiment, received word they were deploying. Hara told the brigade commander he was interested in leading the unit. He got the job and found out the unit was going to the readiness center for three weeks of training.

“That’s the most realistic training short of combat,” he said. “The stress and the things you do, it’s like you’re at war. It’s amazing how they replicate it.”

The unit spent a year in Baghdad, Iraq, supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. The entire time, Hara worried he was going to lose one of his Soldiers.

When he got home, he had a hard time decompressing. He tried exercising to help him relax.

While he was running with his wife one afternoon, he heard hammering from a house, which sounded to him like small arms fire. He jumped into a nearby bush, yelling for her to get down. When his wife asked what he was doing, he snapped out of it.

It took him a while to adjust but he did. His wife also had a hard time with his first deployment as she raised their young kids.

So, he went to the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, for a year of school and brought the family with him. The time did wonders for them.

“That was probably the best year of our lives being married because [the school] built in time for you to reconnect with your family,” he said.

Near the end of the school year, a job opened that would have him deploy again. He asked his wife if he should apply, and she said he should because it would help his career. He thought to himself, “Is this the same wife?”

He got the job and deployed to Kuwait in 2008 as the deputy commander of the 29th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. His team spent nine months providing security for sustainment convoys heading to Iraq.

That led him to become the commander of the unit and go on a third deployment in 2012, this time to Kandahar, Afghanistan, where they advised and assisted the Afghan army and national police.

After coming home in 2013, he was assigned as the chief of the joint staff for the Joint Force Headquarters – Hawaii, under Maj. Gen. Darryll D.M. Wong.

“He gave me so many opportunities,” he said. “I got to work in so many different fields, and that made me a better officer.”

He was promoted to brigadier general in 2015 and took on the role of assistant adjutant general. He stayed in that role for several years and became dual-hatted as the commander of Joint Task Force – 50 in support of the Kilauea volcanic eruption in the spring of 2018.

“This was the most dynamic disaster response [of my career,]” he said.

This was followed by Hurricanes Lane and Olivia, which brought torrential rainfall and devastating winds to Hawaii in 2018. The task force again provided support.

In December 2019, Hara was promoted to major general and took over as adjutant general.

“I thought it was a huge responsibility but there was no way anything could be as bad as 2018, and low and behold, COVID hit,” he said.

After speaking with the governor, he was named the incident commander of COVID-19 response for the state of Hawaii. Hara and his team went to work as they learned to navigate a pandemic. 

Just when things started to settle down, wildfires hit Maui, killing 101 people and destroying more than 2,000 structures. The National Guard was once again called in to provide support.

Throughout his 40 years of service, Hara learned a lot from the many challenges. He even learned to embrace the bait-and-switch.

“My father was absolutely right for ‘forcing’ me to start my officer career in the infantry,” he said. “That foundational grounding helped me in every assignment throughout my career, beyond just in aviation.”

He used that same advice with his son, who is now a Hawaii Army National Guard infantry officer.

“I think [service] is just in our blood,” he said. “Service to the community, service to the state, and service to the nation. For me, I didn’t see [doing] anything else.”

Hara plans to retire this year.



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