Lieutenant Commander Makaila Lasalo’s journey with Navy began when she was eight after her parents laid the anchor of their family-built yacht in Tonga.
CAPTION: Lieutenant Commander Makaila Lasalo with women from the Tongan defence force. Story by Lieutenant Commander Andrew Ragless.
It was here that she first stepped onto a visiting RAN warship.
Enamoured by the island nation, she stayed for four years with her parents who were teaching at the local schools.
The experience lit a spark for Lieutenant Commander Lasalo – a career and a lifestyle that would entice her back to Tonga 30 years later.
She’s now employed as the maritime surveillance adviser (MSA) embedded in the Tongan Royal Navy.
Lieutenant Commander Lasalo is responsible for assisting in the operation of Guardian-class patrol boats as well as Tonga’s landing craft.
“It’s a privilege to work alongside my Tongan Navy brothers and sisters, especially with so many childhood memories,” she said.
“Tonga is also the birthplace of my husband Patrick’s parents.
“I feel blessed that my career has given my family an opportunity to connect with their cultural heritage.”
Lieutenant Commander Lasalo joined the Navy in 2000 and spent 10 years serving as a maritime warfare officer before making a change to marine engineering officer.
It was during her posting as the refit manager for the Pacific Patrol Boat Ship’s Program office that she was exposed to the Defence Cooperation Program and the unique role of MSA, working closely with patrol boat crews from 12 Pacific Island nations.
Lieutenant Commander Lasalo sought out opportunities that allowed for a balance of professional growth and quality time with her family. She set her sights on Tonga.
“I saw an opportunity to give my husband and the children an experience in the Pacific that we could otherwise only dream of,” she said.
Nonetheless, success didn’t come without challenges and in 2018, when her second child was only 20 months old, she returned to sea as deputy marine engineer in HMAS Adelaide, and her husband stepped up to juggle parenting and full-time work.
“It’s the sacrifice of our families and loved ones that enable us to serve our country,” she said.
In Tonga, the MSA role requires a great deal of autonomy at the end of a long logistics and supply chain with limited resources.
“I never thought I’d be wearing so many hats,” Lieutenant Commander Lasalo said.
“I’m an engineer, a pusser, a workforce planner; Sea Training Group, and Fleet Support Unit – sometimes all in one week.”
One of those hates included providing support to the Tongan Royal Navy in its distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to the remote islands of Tonga.
The MSA role is a vital part of building relationships between Australia and our Pacific neighbours.
These relationships are built at work, at sea, at schools, and in the community, and have their foundation in over 30 years of collaboration and shared experiences from working together in the South Pacific region.
“It is exciting to see the rollout of Social Mastery in Navy as it relates to my role,” Lieutenant Commander Lasalo said.
“Having patience and social awareness, being able to read the room and navigate cultural challenges are very important attributes.”
Lieutenant Commander Lasalo is the first female MSA in Tonga.
During her time, she has seen the introduction into service of two new Guardian-class patrol boats.
This capability has enabled the integration of women into maritime seagoing roles and Lieutenant Commander Lasalo has been instrumental in supporting the Tongan Royal Navy through the early stages of integration.
“The women of the Tongan Royal Navy are strong, brave and inspiring,” she said.
“To witness and contribute to the start of their history-making journey is something I will take with me for the rest of my life.”