CAMP ZAMA, Japan — Athletic activities dominated much of Kekua Aumua’s childhood growing up on the North Shore of Oahu.
He played various sports and attended Kahuku High School, where he was a running back for its powerhouse football team known for producing several NFL players.
Aumua recalled how sports helped bond the small Hawaiian community together. He eventually brought that spirit to Camp Zama, where he often volunteers to coach youth sports.
Children can learn many lessons from playing a sport, said Aumua, a supervisory air traffic control specialist at Kastner Airfield here. The successes and failures found in competition and how a person handles them is good for youth to experience, he said.
“It’s not necessarily about sports; it’s about the community,” Aumua, 43, said of why he volunteers. “Whatever community you are a part of, you should try to make it better.”
After he graduated from high school in 1997, Aumua left the beach countryside to play football and baseball for Los Angeles Harbor College. During that time, racial violence plagued the city and Aumua was not immune as it crept into his life.
One day while playing basketball with friends who were also of Polynesian descent, some men unknown to him began to fire bullets toward them. As the unprovoked shooting unfolded, one of Aumua’s friends was shot on the court, and another was shot as he tried to flee.
“It wasn’t a one-off thing. It happened a lot,” Aumua said of the shootings. “Luckily, I was never caught up in any of it, but seeing it happen to other people that I knew, it was definitely an eye-opener that scared you straight.”
The violence put things into perspective for Aumua and following his first year in college, he decided that living in L.A. was not for him and he returned to Hawaii.
While he pondered his next move, his brother chose to serve in the Army. “I never really thought about it until he joined,” Aumua said.
As he had done to get past defenders on the football field, Aumua sidestepped and turned his life in another direction. He became part of another community — the Army — as an air traffic control operator and served for six years.
His first and only duty station was Wheeler Army Airfield, located along Kamehameha Highway about an hour from his old stomping grounds.
Aumua, who later earned his bachelor’s degree using the G.I. Bill, said he appreciated how the Army gave him a stronger purpose and allowed him to conduct unique missions all over the world. He supported numerous Special Forces operations and traveled to Afghanistan, Bosnia, the Philippines and Thailand as part of his job.
Once his enlistment was done, Aumua was able to transfer his skills into a civilian role at Wheeler, where he stayed until he relocated to Camp Zama in 2018.
From their windowed perch inside the Kastner air control tower, which offers a 360-degree vista of mountains to the west and Tokyo skyscrapers to the east, Aumua and his team have perhaps the best view in the area.
While UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters normally buzz around the airfield, Aumua sometimes coordinates to have Japanese military rotary aircraft land there. He also works with local governments to ensure buildings being constructed do not affect their airspace.
“I like the professional aspect of it,” Aumua said about his role. “There are so many rules and regulations you have to know, and it changes all the time. It keeps you on your game.”
As an Army civilian, he said he has assisted with visits from high-profile dignitaries, such as then-President Barack Obama in Hawaii and then-Vice President Mike Pence in Japan.
But his greatest career accomplishment, he said, was being able to train and influence uniformed air traffic controllers. While at Wheeler, he helped over 50 Soldiers receive a civilian certification from the Federal Aviation Administration.
“Giving them the opportunity to do that, and if they choose to get out and get a [civilian] job to take care of their families, is pretty cool to me,” he said. “But it also made a more capable fighting force that is more proficient, tactically and technically.”
Loyd Black II, chief of the Kastner air control tower, has known Aumua since 2005 when both started their careers at Wheeler. He described Aumua as an “outstanding employee” that the Army needs to hold on to.
“He often does work outside his normal duties and is a great teammate,” Black said. “Over the years he has demonstrated that he is not only a great controller, but a good friend.”
Aumua and his wife, Siapotaga'i, chose to move to Japan to give their two children, who both attend Zama Middle High School, a broader perspective of the world outside of Hawaii.
His daughter, Kierstyn, who is in the 10th grade, plays shortstop on the boy’s baseball team after she received permission from the school to make the switch from softball.
And his son, Kekua-kaninauali'i, an eighth grader who is already 6 feet, 3 inches tall and 250 pounds, is looking to join the football team next season.
Both of them have also played for the Sagamihara Young Giants, a local youth baseball club similar to Little League. Aumua helped organize the team to provide American youth a chance to play with Japanese teammates.
“Aumua is a great ambassador for [U.S. Army Garrison Japan],” Black said. “He volunteers to coach and mentor not only U.S. dependents, but does the same for our Japanese partners’ youth.”
Before the pandemic, Aumua sometimes held practice on the installation and afterward he would take the players to the food court so they could interact.
“It’s crazy to see that the language barrier is there,” Aumua said, “but they can still have a good time through baseball.”
As a coach, Aumua said his philosophy is a bit different from how he played. The expectations were too high for him and others, he said, which made the games not as much fun. Instead, he hopes to encourage and lift up a player when they need it.
But he still finds the competitiveness in sports important for players to understand that it can also teach them to support their teammates.
“Make sure you’re giving 100%, because if you’re not, your teammates have to pick up your slack,” he said. “But also … if you’re not giving 100%, then why should they give 100%?”
He shares the same outlook for the community as a whole. His family typically volunteers with sporting events, but also for cleanups, student activities and other community efforts when they have free time.
“It’s very important to me that my family contributes to the community positively,” he said. “Everybody makes mistakes, but as long as you are mostly a positive member of the community — I think that’s a mandatory thing in my family, at least.”
Family and respect are values that were ingrained into him as a child.
As a Hawaiian and Samoan, Aumua, whose first name is Kekuakaninaualli but who goes by Kekua for short, said he appreciated how his island community always looked out for each other.
“For me, that’s what endears Hawaii to me,” he said. “There are so many similar, like-minded people that have the same values and still uphold them and teach them.”
While living in Japan, Aumua said he has noticed that the culture here can often parallel his own: honoring one’s family, helping the next generation and treating everybody with respect.
It all ties in with his lifelong motto, and sports is just one way of tackling it.
“Try to make the community better,” he said, “wherever you decide to put down roots.”