Building community: Asian American, Pacific Islanders group provides support, mentorship

Several years ago, Maj. Kate Alegado, a first-generation Filipino American, was searching for a group that understood her and could advocate for her during her Army career.

After initially having little success, she found exactly what she was looking for when she came across the Asian and Pacific Islander Army Officers Facebook group two years ago.

“I’m beyond grateful just to know there are others similar to me,” she said. “There are people who truly care, there are people who truly understand the path that I went through and the path that my family went through, and there is a path to opportunities and possibilities that I didn’t think was achievable seven years ago.”

The group was created in 2020 by Maj. Seth Varayon and Lt. Col. Neil Alcaria. It started as a Facebook group to bring Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Army officers together for professional development, mentoring and community building.

"I think those three pillars occur naturally in the Army and when we are doing well, we experience those things regardless of what race you are," Varayon said. “I think it's easy for some people to feel they aren't getting [those things], especially junior and mid-career AANHPI Soldiers.”

While on a rotation to South Korea, Varayon and then Maj. Gen. Mark Toy, who was the deputy chief of staff at the United Nations Command, realized there were a lot of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Soldiers stationed in the country. The group worked with Toy to hold a series of leadership and professional development engagements.

These initial events showed them there was a real need for the group and that it could be successful when they brought people together.

“We are trying to show people we can be united, be overtly supportive, sponsor each other and improve each other,” Varayon said. “This group allows Soldiers to connect and feel comfortable asking questions.”

The group grew, mostly by word of mouth and with support from senior leaders like Brig. Gen. Michael B. Siegl, and now has nearly 2,000 members. They have a Facebook group, a LinkedIn group and a Microsoft Teams page. They hold online leadership panels, in person events and have a mentorship program that has matched dozens of Soldiers.

Then Maj. Gen. Mark Toy, deputy chief of staff at the United Nations Command, engages with Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Soldiers during a leadership development panel in South Korea, Nov. 19, 2020. These were the initial events set up by the Asian and Pacific Islander Army Officers group to help Soldiers with professional development, mentoring and community building.

Alegado signed up for the mentorship program, and within two days she received a call, email and text from her new mentor. She said what sets this organization apart is the cultural relationships, the informal feel and the ability to keep each other honest.

“It definitely takes a village to help an individual develop and grow, especially in an organization like a military service,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed being a part of this community. It’s just too beautiful to not be involved.”

Being a part of the group has also increased her desire to stay in the Army.

“If you asked me two years ago, I was close to transitioning out of the military,” she said. “Being a part of this group gives you this sense of inspiration and possibilities. It’s that constant reminder of what else you haven’t experienced in uniform.”

Capt. Ben White, a civil affairs officer, is a member of the group’s leadership team and has been around since its inception. He was stationed in South Korea when he met Varayon and participated in the first few leadership panel discussions.

He said it was difficult for him before to find Asian American leaders and mentors in the civil affairs community. This group helped him find the mentorship he was looking for to further his career. It also created a community of Soldiers that he can reach out to wherever he goes.

“It's been really fulfilling seeing the beginnings, as it started as just a few dedicated and passionate leaders for AANHPI Soldiers, develop into this group where we have around 2,000 strong, really well-connected [Soldiers],” he said. “We are all really motivated and excited to see how we can further champion the AANHPI community in the Army.”

With the group gaining traction, Varayon said the hope is to expand the community across the total Army force to include enlisted, National Guard, Army Reserve, spouses, retirees and Army civilians.

“We want this group to be inclusive,” he said. “At the end of the day, we are all still connected through our general interest of AANHPI and the advocation and advancement of the community as a whole."



Christopher Hurd, Army News Service