I had the opportunity to speak to Master Sgt. Herinah Asaah during her final few days serving as the master religious support noncommissioned officer in charge for U.S. Army Installation Management Command-Pacific at Fort Shafter on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. The following is a transcript of our candid conversation.
Walters: To set the stage for this discussion, let’s go back to right before you came to IMCOM-Pacific. Where did you come from?
Asaah: I came here from Fort Drum, New York. I was there for about 15 months. Before that, I was the garrison religious support Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge at Fort Irwin for two years. I guess that gave me the foundation, having dealt with two separate, distinct garrisons – one cold, one hot – to help oversee religious support for all the Army installations in the Pacific. I arrived here in the summer of 2017 with my family.
Walters: So, you’ve been here quite a while?
Asaah: Yes. I will leave here a couple of days shy of five years.
Walters: Wow. Is that uncommon?
Asaah: It’s uncommon Army wise, especially when you become a senior NCO, but I think the Army is moving toward a little bit more stability for families. For instance, before I got here, I moved three times in about five years. For me, I needed that stability for my kids. They were right at the high school age. Thank God, due to high school stabilization, I was able to get that approved. Both my daughters just graduated from high school here in Hawaii.
Human Resources Command is doing a fabulous job now of really educating Soldiers on the timelines, advising, and sharing all that information. They’re more transparent about the process. A message just came out about three weeks ago saying that if Soldiers wanted to put in for high school stabilization, they needed to do it at least a couple of years out. That way, all the organizations have a chance to look at it and the Soldier can plan well ahead.
Walters: Had you been to Hawaii before you came in 2017?
Asaah: No, I had never been to Hawaii. I always thought people who came to Hawaii knew somebody who was looking out for them. I always thought it would be fun to come to Hawaii, but it was never really my desire, per se. I never asked for it, but, lo and behold, one day I was sitting at Fort Drum and the Sergeant Major, calls me and he’s like, “Hey, how would you like to go to the tropical environment?”
Walters: So do you feel like it was everything everybody always says it was?
Asaah: Most of the people we talked to did not like it. Some talked about island fever, others talked about the bugs and the geckos and stuff, which didn’t bother me, having grown up in tropical Cameroon, West Africa. When we came here, this felt exactly like home. We were very comfortable here.
Walters: You mentioned your kids went to high school here in Hawaii. How was your experience with the public school system here in Hawaii?
Asaah: We were discouraged and warned that the public schools in Hawaii weren’t very good. Every time we moved, we focused on what school our kids were going to and that gave us an idea of where to live. So, I immediately picked up the phone and called over to one of the schools to set our kids up for success before coming here. We were referred to Aliamanu Middle School and we’ve never looked back. Aliamanu feeds into Radford High School. We felt really at home with the schools, we were able to bring any concerns we had to the schools.
Walters: So, you’ve been generally happy with the public schools here?
Asaah: We’ve been more than happy because they have been behind our kids every step of the way. They cherish parental involvement. We are very involved in our children’s education and the schools really appreciated that. It is a team effort. It has been great.
Walters: A lot of a lot of people hear that the schools here on Oahu are challenging here. It’s good to know that we can tell families coming to Hawaii that there are quality public school options.
Where do you live, on-post, or off-post?
Asaah: We immediately sought housing on post, which is what we’ve typically done everywhere we’ve gone. We got housing at the Aliamanu Military Reservation, and we’ve been in the same house for almost five years. It has been fabulous, as far as the housing quality. Military housing is always structured, so we got the senior NCO housing. In the last three years, there have been some upgrades, like better lighting, exterior painting, and bathroom updates. Every time we’ve put in work orders, they’ve responded favorably. I have had my microwave and refrigerator replaced as well.
Walters: Have you been happy with the privatized housing contractor here?
Asaah: Yes. The admin folks at the Red Hill Community Center know me by name. Sometimes I just stop by there, say hi, and borrow lawn equipment. They have treats, you know. I get myself a cup of coffee and check on them as well. It’s part of being a member of the community.
Walters: Living at AMR means that you went through the Oahu Navy water system contamination issue. How did that work out for you?
Asaah: Because of our personal circumstances, it was hard for us to live in a hotel and meet all the needs of our household. Living in a hotel somewhere downtown with one car would not have worked for us. So, we had to sit down as a family like we always do and talk through it. I think we also looked at it from a positive point of view. Both myself and my husband grew up in Africa, so we were used to no water, no lights – you know, the hardships.
There was no running water in the house, but Task Force Ohana brought water to us. We had clean drinking water. Funny thing, my mother-in-law visited for a couple of weeks, and she was amazed at how well they took care of us. “Wow, it must be nice to just ride up in your car and fetch water and get back in the car.” Where we grew up, we had to carry it on our heads or put it in a wheelbarrow and push it miles to the house. Our daughters would say something like, “Mom and dad, that was a different time.” Okay, got it. It was a different time, but the resiliency lessons are the same. They had to heat up water and put in a bucket to take a bath. At one point, I even took them to the to the showers that were set up at the community center, just so they could experience military style showers – which they loved, by the way. We turned it into a fun thing for them to learn, grow, and build resilience.
Walters: Now that you have running water back in your house, have you had any issues with the water?
Asaah: No, no, we don’t have any issues with the water at all. We’ve always been cautious. We always drink water that has been filtered at least through the refrigerator and that’s what we continue to use. But so far, no issues.
Walters: Good, good. So, kind of back to normal. Going back to your job, have you always worked with the chaplaincy?
Asaah: Yes, I have. I went to the recruiter, and they said, “you can do admin, or you can do admin and religious support.” It was a no brainer for me to pick this job, and I have not looked back since then. I love everything about it. Being able to help Soldiers, their families and the community, being able to learn about the different religions or faith groups, and how to support them. Some of them I was exposed to at a young age, so it came natural to me. I lived a while with the Islamic community, so it was easy to be able to understand. I also had the opportunity to go to Thailand to support Army exercises there. It was just mind blowing, being able to really live in that culture, where Buddhism is the dominant religion, and visit a religious leader, the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand or Sangharaja, to hear the wisdom that he had to share and to realize we’re all following the same path, so to speak. A life of goodness, a life of service, a life of compassion, and mindfulness. It was nice to have that experience while I was stationed here at IMCOM-Pacific.
Walters: What is your experience with IMCOM?
Asaah: I’ve been I’ve been blessed in my career to have worked a lot with IMCOM and see the changes over the past, maybe, seven years. IMCOM has improved, not just on the religious support side, but as an entity. There is a school of thought out there that disregards IMCOM and says the Army could do without it, but I think that would be a grave mistake. You need that entity that comes in to really take care of the Soldiers and families, with a multitude of resources set aside for it. Obviously, IMCOM cannot do its mission alone. The tenant organizations play a critical role in coming along side or supporting the garrison mission.
Walters: Do you mean standardized?
Asaah: Yes, standardized. It does help the Soldier and families moving from installation to installation. To see the same things in place. It helps them be able to know what to expect, so they’re not anxious and just able to enjoy the process. Certain things in the Army are a mystery and this should not be one of them. Everything is transparent. They can get relevant and accurate information before they get to the next installation.
Walters: IMCOM is a little bit different than most units and organizations in the Army because of the very high percentage of civilian employees. How has your experience been with civilians?
Asaah: I have had a very positive interactions with all my civilian counterparts here. It was the same at my previous garrisons. You get to understand and see what people do, what they bring to the team, and how we can leverage each other’s skills and talents to take care of the community. Just working together. I think that is refreshing and something that I really cherish. I have also been blessed to attend certain training with the civilian workforce and really come to appreciate what they bring to support the warfighters as well.
Walters: Is there anything that you learned here that you want to share?
Asaah: I would say that I have learned so much, I can’t even narrow it down to one thing. This is an awesome organization. I have seen many transitions in this organization but one constant fact remains-the people, the leadership, the sections – they are just one big community of subject matter experts. Everyone cares about the reputation of the organization and each other. The leadership really models the IMCOM service culture, in and out of the organization. From loss to joy, just celebrating with each staff member, finding those open opportunities to get together or give an accolade to a deserving teammate. Everybody truly cares. There are organizations out there where people do not know each other’s names, or which cubicle somebody is sitting in, but that is not the case here. It is a large organization, yet, one ohana (family).
Walters: Well, I don’t have any other questions for you. Anything I missed?
Asaah: I think we covered it. I will truly miss this organization. It’s funny, I came here thinking I was going to retire in Hawaii. Obviously, God had other plans for me. This organization will always be near and dear to my heart for all the things that I have learned, the ways that I have grown, and the people I have come to regard as family. This organization is phenomenal and a key player in the Pacific.