Born into a family enmeshed in the “waterman” tradition of Hawaii and raised by an entire community built on a foundation of mutual support and responsibility, Master Sgt. Alfred Van Gieson has become an ambassador of Hawaiian culture through his success as a champion paddler. His heritage and upbringing has not only been instrumental in leading teams of paddlers to success on the ocean, but also in leading and motivating Airmen on the flightline of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.
Growing up in Nanakuli, on the Island of Oahu, Hawaii, Van Gieson was told story after story about his father — a legendary outrigger canoe paddler. He heard of the many victories his father had amassed and the philanthropic good deeds that the Van Gieson name was known for. Young Al quickly learned that being a Van Gieson meant that there was never a lack of great friends, great family, great stories and great waves.
His father ensured that he and his son would share a bond with the ocean by giving Van Gieson the middle name Paeikanalu, meaning catch a wave to shore. For Van Gieson, this name became his identity.
It was during his early years that Van Gieson really began to grow spiritually through lessons in life and started to understand that ohana, the Hawaiian word for family, and aloha, the Hawaiian salutation, were actually philosophies and not just common nouns.
These philosophies formed the foundation of his Hawaiian community; a simple blue-collar group that has lived in Nanakuli for many generations. Everyone knew each other and each played an active role in his upbringing.
“I remember walking home from the beach with my good friends one day, when we decided to take our usual, half-way-home, break,” Van Gieson said. “Our go-to spot was the site of a fruitful mango, where we would site along the curb, in the shade of the tree, while one of us fetched fresh fruit for the group.
“It was that day when an old man came outside from a nearby house and handed us a few mangoes. He then told us ‘don’t climb the tree, I don’t want you guys to get hurt.’ He then took us around the side of his house to where he kept his mango picker. He said, ‘you are more than welcome to use the picker, just don’t leave a mess.’
It’s that kind of aloha and hospitality that you come to appreciate living in small Hawaiian community.”
Guided by culture
Throughout his school years, Van Gieson began to make a name for himself, standing out among other high school athletes by showcasing an innate talent for competitive paddling. This is also the time when his ability to inspire and draw followers began to truly shine.
One of Van Gieson’s biggest fans, Grandma Edie, was quick to recognize his talents. When not in school he was helping her and his Grandpa Henry at the family-owned and operated canoe club.
“Al’s personality and talents made him quickly stand out amid the others at his high school, both on the water and amongst his friends,” said Edith “Edie” Kaleilani Van Gieson. “You quickly began to realize that there was something special about Al, and everyone loved and respected him — from children to elders.”
Then, shortly after graduating from high school in 1999, Van Gieson decided to join the military — a place where that, “something special,” would play a big part.
“When Al told me that he was going to join the military, I had mixed emotions,” said Edie. “My reservations were mainly because of what was happening around the world and how that might jeopardize his safety, and also because I would miss him be being around so much. I was never worried that he wouldn’t be able to fit in, be able to lead others, or be successful — he had been doing that for many, many years.”
And fit in Van Gieson did.
“The Hawaiian culture and its ohana-family mindset played a tremendous role in my ability to adapt to the military. The idea is very applicable, especially given the number of people you meet, and the different walks of life they come from,” Van Gieson said.
“You don’t know what they have been through, you don’t know their struggles, but that’s why it’s so important to take the time to get to know them. There is no way we would ever be able to move one step forward in life without the help of others; that’s why I truly believe that success is centered around family, care, and compassion.”
After a trying, seven-year stint as an Army infantryman during the height of the Iraq War, Al decided he needed a more stable lifestyle for his two children, Makoa, and Lilinoe. Though he loved being a scout, he realized that during the course of his combat tours, he had missed some of the most memorable moments in his children’s lives.
“After a long and mentally exhausting tour to Iraq in support of OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom), I realized that my deployment really took a lot out of me,” Van Gieson said. “It was at that point, I knew that I needed a break, a chance to regroup, refocus – so I transitioned to the inactive reserves.
“However, a short while later and after some much needed time away, I realized that I missed the military. Surprisingly, around that time, I ran into one of my good friends that I served in the Army with. Come to find out he transitioned to the Air Force and had nothing but fantastic things to say about it. Immediately I felt that it was a good gig for me — I went straight to the recruiter’s office and enlisted in the reserves.”
In no time, Van Gieson was back in military, but now as an air transportation specialist with the 48th Aerial Port Squadron, 624th Regional Support Group at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. He was now an operations supervisor at one of the busiest ports in the world.
It was the transition out of the Army and into the Air Force that set Van Gieson on a path to accomplish one of his ultimate goals — becoming a world champion paddler.
With his new career offering a stable schedule, Van Gieson was finally able to focus his efforts on racing outrigger canoes. Less than four years after joining the Air Force, he achieved a feat never accomplished by a Hawaiian in the history of the competitive paddling – becoming V-1 International Va’a Federation World Champion. The accomplishment established Van Gieson as a premier outrigger canoe paddler and brought great pride to his native community.
Likewise, he excelled as an air transportation specialist and supervisor. His unit was recognized for excellence, earning Air Force-level honors for outstanding operations.
Because it’s our kuleana
“The one thing I will always remember about my grandfather is how much he was respected by others,” Van Gieson said. “And it was because he never asked someone to do something he wouldn’t do himself. By doing so he was able to inspire passion into a lot of people, which made for a great atmosphere of family and strength.
“That’s what I try to emulate. If I can lead with the ability to gain respect and inspire others to be as strong as a family, then success itself is a byproduct of anything I do.”
Van Gieson took his grandfather’s approach and now uses it to inspire his own work center and the Airmen that work for him. He also uses a native Hawaiian teaching technique that has been carried on for generations called “talking story.”
“In Hawaii it’s a very important part of our culture to talk mo`olelo or tell stories that teach important lessons. This is part of our kuleana or personal sense of responsibility as community members,” Van Gieson explained. “This is how we pass on the knowledge and history that we have learned from our kupuna, which are our elders.”
“This type of approach is a very powerful thing and works very well in the Air Force. It can be used to explain situations we have encountered on the job or even situations we have faced in our personal lives. The great thing about it is, this type of learning helps Airman on any level.”
Talking story is a very important tool that Van Gieson uses as a air transportation specialist. It is one of the many ways that he bridges his culture and experience into the assurance that he has qualified Airmen ready to provide air terminal and support contingency operations, unit moves, and humanitarian relief or disaster operations.
“Master Sgt. Van Gieson seamlessly blends his Hawaiian Ohana culture and ocean regatta lifestyle to his Airmen duties,” said Capt. Kenneth Ruggles, an operations officer with the 48th APS. “As an ocean paddler, the team needs to be paddling in sync and work together to safely, efficiently and successfully navigate the Hawaiian waters. Al demonstrates that same philosophy with his natural ability to build teams from the ground-up, and lead the men and women of the 48th Aerial Port Squadron. You see the prominent regatta collaboration and team cohesiveness when Al is part of the team.”
Van Gieson’s experiences in the military and as a world champion paddler, he now sees how everything has come full-circle; back to the lessons learned in his youth.
“It took me a long time to realize that what I was witnessing when I grew up was actually a series of life lessons. The stories I was told, the events I was a part of, and the way that community took care of each other – they all had a much deeper meaning,” Van Gieson said.
“I now truly have a greater understanding of what my culture truly means. I know that it has made be a better father, son, husband and Airman and because of that I know it’s my time to give back. It’s time for me to tell my stories, inspire younger generations, and use everything that my Hawaiian culture, my experiences and community have instilled.”