Behind every airline is a collective of military members and veterans whose skills from the armed forces are a perfect fit for the demands of commercial aviation. At Hawaiian, more than 530 self-identified veterans work across our operations, from flying our aircraft to managing cyber security, and since January 2023, we've been a partner in Embry‑Riddle Aeronautical University's Aviation Maintenance Technology (AMT) SkillBridge program, which provides servicemen and women opportunities to bridge the transition into the civilian aviation and aerospace sector.
Our veteran employees are also encouraged to stay connected with others through the Hawaiian Airlines Veterans Employee Network (HAVEN) employee resource group (ERG). Established in 2017, HAVEN works to create networking opportunities, enhance recruitment of military members and pave pathways for mentoring and career development.
“On behalf of all of us at Hawaiian Airlines, we mahalo those who have served our country. Our employee veterans' commitment to excellence and service has and will always be a key ingredient to our success in connecting Hawaiʻi with the world,” said Robin Kobayashi, senior vice president of human resources and the executive sponsor of the HAVEN ERG.
In the first of this two-part blog feature, we celebrate the service-to-civilian journeys of two HAVEN leaders, John Kim, director of IT field services, and Justin Nowak, senior project manager.
Tell us about your military background and service.
John Kim: I was born and raised on Oʻahu and enlisted into the United States Air Force (USAF) in July 1997 and went to basic military training in November 1997. My first career was as a fuels/cryogenics journeyman at Aviano Air Base in Italy, supporting the largest multinational air campaign, Operation Allied Force (March 1999), in Kosovo. I was 19 years old, delivering fuel to 892 multinational aircraft via a 5,000-gallon refueling truck and working 14-plus-hour shifts.
I then served as a USAF Base Ceremonial Honor Guardsman, a protocol non-commissioned officer for the Wing Commander, Hickam Air Force Base, and after as the executive assistant for the wing command chief. I ultimately became the personal “IT guy” for the four-star general – commander of the Pacific Air Forces and spent the rest of my military career in IT communications – cyber systems operations. After the passing of my father in 2004, I transitioned to the USAF Reserves and the Hawaiʻi Air National Guard, where I ended my 22-year USAF career.
Justin Nowak: I first enlisted in the United States Army Reserves as a combat engineer (21B) in September 2005, subsequently undergoing Basic Combat Training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. After a few years of service, I sought a more active military role and re-enlisted for Infantry (11B) in the Active Component in 2009. Following my second stint in Basic Combat Training, this time as an 11B, I was stationed at the 3rd Infantry Division based out of Fort Stewart, Georgia, where I served as a team leader within the 3-7IN Battalion.
During my military career, I was deployed to Iraq and provided support for both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn. Upon my return from deployment, I received permanent change of station orders to the 25th Infantry Division, stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaiʻi. Here, I was attached to the 1-14IN Golden Dragons until my term of service expired in 2016.
After that, I decided to join the Hawaiʻi Army National Guard as an advanced leader course instructor. I was assigned to the 1st Battalion 298th Regiment and continue to serve in this capacity today.
How was the transition out of active duty? How did you come across Hawaiian Airlines?
John Kim: It was a scary time for me; I was so used to a regimented schedule and leading. While I was an Air Force reservist, I joined the Honolulu Police Department (HPD) and became a full-time police officer. After six years with HPD, I was offered a full-time civilian position to oversee all IT operations for the Air Forces Reserves in Hawaiʻi and Guam and subsequently transitioned into HPD’s reserve program, where I helped automate some of its reporting practices. I’ve been an HPD reserve officer for over 19 years.
I’ve since served various federal contractor jobs – all of which were lucrative, but it always felt like something was missing and I got tired of working for another company every three years after a contract was up. I remembered seeing Pualani [the iconic face on Hawaiian’s aircraft tail] during my deployments and I thought I’d check out what opportunities Hawaiian Airlines had to offer. I was hired in 2014 as a technical lead and today I oversee our IT field services operation.
Justin Nowak: I faced one of the most challenging periods in my life when I left the U.S. Army in May 2016. The reality was far more demanding than I had anticipated, and the transition was stark: I went from leading soldiers, overseeing millions of dollars’ worth of equipment and bearing immense responsibilities to a situation where all I had was a resume in hand. But I persevered, chose to make Hawaiʻi my new home (I’m originally from Wisconsin) and set my sights on landing a dream career with Hawaiian Airlines.
How did your military skills transition to Hawaiian Airlines?
John Kim: My years in the military allowed me to hone my people skills and taught me that respect as a leader is earned and not just given because of your title. It also taught me that a leader is also responsible for taking initiative and building/maintaining mutually trusting, open relationships with their team. I try to carry these skills into my role as president of the HAVEN ERG.
Justin Nowak: My military skills in sharp decision-making, taking initiative, people management and communication have helped me be a better leader at Hawaiian Airlines. I’m also a HAVEN member and officer and was recently honored to share my transition story as a guest speaker for the Wounded Warrior Project.
I’m also an avid ocean paddler and have found that the organizational skills I picked up while in service also apply when racing in an outrigger canoe. In Hawaiʻi, when talking about leadership and teamwork, it’s common to use a canoe crew as an example, because for the canoe to move forward and compete, the crew needs to paddle with rhythm and synchronicity. If one paddle is off, the outrigger could lose its smooth glide across the top of the water. In the military, at Hawaiian Airlines, in the canoe and in life, working as one toward a common goal will always be key to achieving excellence.
How has your experience been at Hawaiian? Are you involved in any veteran-focused initiatives at work or in the community?
John Kim: It’s been great, but I think we can do better. We have great leadership here at the company, and HAVEN is working closely with leaders and their teams to find more ways to support veterans and develop recognition programs. We recently worked with human resources in hosting Hawaiian’s first-ever Military Open House, an informational session for military members preparing to transition into a civilian career, and it was a huge success.
Every year hundreds of thousands of military members transition into the civilian market and they bring an advanced perspective that is a competitive advantage in our increasingly globalized economy. Veterans have learned to work side-by-side with individuals with unique backgrounds and capabilities – from all over the world, under stressful and often demanding conditions. As a 22-plus-year Air Force veteran, it’s thrilling to see Hawaiian making impactful strides to support transitioning servicemembers and recognize their value.
Justin Nowak: My experience as a veteran at Hawaiian has been very fruitful. Being an active member of HAVEN and serving in Hawaiʻi Army Guard has allowed me to be a part of two great military organizations.
Do you have any advice for veterans transitioning from service and interested in joining the airline industry?
John Kim: You’ve proven your commitment, discipline and resourcefulness in the military world and now it's time to trade in your experiences for a new chapter: your second career! This transition period is all about readiness, attitude and learning to adapt and overcome the hurdles that await you. Just find your passion and turn it into your profession!
Justin Nowak: It's going to be challenging, to say the least; however, focus on education and networking to help bolster your chances of landing a meaningful career.