Walking into the headquarters building for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District, a wall of portraits featuring former commanders greets employees and visitors alike. Of the 29 men who have led the organization during its distinguished history, Col. Damon Delarosa is the first to represent the Asian American community.
“I am humbled to be the commander here after 75 years,” he said.
Beyond the confines of the Last Frontier, Delarosa is helping to break new ground on a broader scale as well. Currently, he is one of five engineer colonels within USACE and among two USACE brigade commanders who are of Asian descent.
He assumed command of the district last August and became responsible for a multi-million dollar program that provides engineering, construction, planning, contracting, real estate, emergency operations, environmental and regulatory services to the military; federal, state and local governments; as well as the public in Alaska.
“I joined the military for the adventure and to see the world,” Delarosa said. “Alaska, the adventure that comes with it, the great challenges the district has with projects throughout the state and into Asia make it a great district to be a part of.”
Since taking charge of the district, Delarosa has stressed the importance of special emphasis months to promote awareness and understanding among the 400 employees who work for the agency.
“We focus on diversity, but it is beyond that,” he said. “It is to bring a diversity of thought and experiences into an organization.”
Throughout May, the Alaska District celebrated Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month to honor the history, culture and contributions of people affiliated with more than 50 ethnic groups, including native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders.
This effort included a social media campaign that shared the personal stories of workforce members whose ancestry is linked to Asia and/or the Pacific Islands. The eight profiled individuals included an accountant, architect, chemist, contract specialist, economist, program analyst, project manager and resident engineer.
“To me, celebrating AAPIHM is a big deal and it has become a bigger deal as I have gotten older,” Delarosa said. “As I’ve realized the things I miss, this month helps me remember where I came from.”
His grandparents grew up in the Philippines. During World War II, Delarosa’s grandmother hid in a rice paddy while her village was slaughtered. She then fled to Micronesia where she met Delarosa’s grandfather, who also fled from the Philippines. The couple later immigrated to the U.S. where they established a new life together and raised five children, including his father.
Delarosa’s parents both served in the military, so he gravitated toward a career in the armed forces, graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1998.
“My sponsor [at West Point] was a Filipino woman and started to speak Tagalog to me,” Delarosa said. “I realized then that I have missed that part of my heritage, so have made an effort to get to know that more.”
As he worked his way through the ranks, he maintained a relationship with Maj. Gen. Mark Toy, chief of staff for the United Nations Command.
“He is the one who told me to be myself and follow my heart,” Delarosa said. “He provided career advice on the type of assignments to pursue to round out my skills and help me advance.”
Delarosa now does the same for other Asian American service members by visiting ROTC programs and attending conferences to help junior officers plan their careers and offer advice.
“Being a minority in the organization, I think I lead with empathy,” Delarosa said. “I know that others have lived true hardships because of their race. I have been fortunate that my life has not been as challenging as others.”
His compassionate approach to guiding people toward individual and organizational success places an emphasis on recognizing everyone’s importance on the team, though he also encourages employees to be daring.
“I believe strongly in not being afraid of risks – be bold. Make those choices and decisions that make us more efficient even if that goes against how we traditionally work as an organization,” Delarosa said.
He applies that very philosophy as the district looks at the future of arctic engineering and encourages his employees to do the same as they deliver quality projects on time, within budget and in a safe manner.
“Winning matters,” Delarosa said. “We must remind ourselves we are a federal agency, but also the Army, and the Army doesn’t just show up on the battlefield. We are here to win."