Real leaders are not identified by their uniforms.
Ron MacLaren’s command bearing was clear in a polo shirt and slacks as he strode across the hallway at the tribal building of the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah (Gay Head) earlier this week.
The U.S. Naval Reserve captain was in shape and squared away, his eye contact steady as he listened and spoke.
Part of his carriage comes from commanding 700 naval personnel in Kuwait and side trips to Iraq for the past eight months and from training ingrained from more than 30 years of naval military training.
On Tuesday afternoon, he was back at his desk as health director for the tribe and talking about the experience of leading troops in a war zone after a 20-year career managing hospitals in North Carolina and Alabama.
His deployment to the Mideast was not a surprise.
“I knew I’d see more active duty,” he said. “It wasn’t a question of if but when, so I learned, as a member of the naval management group, to construct a system, a way for people could plan their lives around [deployment.]”
Mr. MacLaren is what he terms a “logistician,” a planner charged in his business and military career with delivering needed resources to colleagues.
However, his goals as an active military planner and leader were markedly different from those of the average hospital manager.
“My first priority was to bring all of my people back,” he said. “We trained and planned to cover all of the possible situations that we could encounter.”
Last Christmas Eve, however, one of Mr. MacLaren’s sailors was critically injured in a car accident on a Kuwait road. His voice softened as he described the accident.
“Driving habits and the roads in the Mideast are very different,” he said. “I wish we could have known more, trained more about that. Maybe more education could have prevented it.”
“Our next priority was to keep families of our troops apprised of the situation while bearing in mind what our mission was and executing it,” he said.
Mr. MacLaren’s life experience served him well in his mission, in which he and his sailors served Army troops rather than Navy forces.
“The Army and the Navy have different cultures, but we worked together well, learned from each other. At the end of the day, both are professional organizations with a shared mission,” he said.
His command oversaw the movement of troops and materiel in and out of Kuwait, the staging area for U.S. ground forces in Iraq.
Beginning as a naval reserve officer training corps candidate during his undergraduate days at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Mr. MacLaren served four years of active duty until 1983, stayed in the active reserve, saw active duty in Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s and has achieved the rank of captain with 29 years of service.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Mr. MacLaren was raised in the former Canal Zone in Panama, where his father was a health officer, managing tropical disease prevention, including malaria.
Both of the MacLaren sons, Brian, 24, and Brett, 23, are on active duty with the Navy. Brett is serving aboard the USS Enterprise and Brian is attending nuclear power submarine school in Charleston, S.C.
After USC, Mr. MacLaren entered the hospital field, met his wife Terrie, then enrolled at Auburn University for a master’s degree in business administration and a return to hospital management jobs. Terrie MacLaren is a home health coordinator for the Vineyard Nursing Association.
The MacLarens summered on the Vineyard, bought a summer home, then moved here after his business retirement in 2004, “a pretty typical Vineyard story,” he said with a smile. Now 50, he has been employed by the tribe for two years.
Mr. MacLaren downplays his service and its impact on him, but admits to an unexpected surge of emotion when he came in on the ferry in Vineyard Haven last week and was honored in a welcoming ceremony.
“I was shaking hands with the color guardsman and I kind of lost it a little. Looking into his eyes, knowing that we had a shared experience, that we knew each other’s experience,” he said.
Home is a gift he treasures. “To see blue sky and green grass after looking at sand-filled gray skies and four colors of brown earth is wonderful,” he said.