LAHARPE — David Lee is on track to become a colonel with the U.S. Army Reserve.
Lee recently received news of the promotion, or what is called being put on “the O6 list,” in Army talk. The position awaits Senate approval.
Lee relaxed on his back porch Tuesday afternoon to discuss his 28-year career with the Army. Within 60 days, he will coordinate the departure of two units to Afghanistan. Though he will remain stateside, he’s seen the conflict up close and personal.
When Lee signed up for the Kansas National Guard in 1985 he was 22 and already had a trade under his belt. Since he was a youth, he had worked for his father, Harry Lee. His family owns LaHarpe Telephone.
In the Guard he became a “wire dog” or wireman with his unit in Iola, laying communication lines for base camps. For almost 20 years things remained quiet. He stayed stateside during Desert Storm in the 1990s. Then in 2004, he got the call — he would be deploying to Iraq, just outside of Baghdad.
“It was exciting, it was scary, there were a myriad of emotions,” Lee said. “You play in the minor leagues your whole life, and all of a sudden you get to play baseball.”
Lee’s skills were put to use as a quartermaster logistician at his post. He was responsible for supplies coming in and out of Baghdad. Just hours after he landed in Iraq, the threat of war became very real.
He was walking the perimeter of base camp with his supervisor, when he heard a large explosion nearby.
“We were being mortared right then and there, I hadn’t been on the ground four hours,” he said.
Then he heard another, different, explosion. His supervisor told him this was an IED (improvised explosive device) that had detonated nearby. Lee was told to return to base and wait to assist the vehicle that had been attacked. When the truck pulled in, Lee saw his first casualties of war. He helped load the bodies into an ambulance.
“It was very real,” Lee said. “It was no longer romantic or anything like that.”
He said due to the nature of his duties, he had trucks on the road every evening in Iraq. IEDs were a big problem at the time, and he experienced his fair share of resistance.
“I don’t know how to explain it, it was eery, very Wild-Westish,” Lee said. “Every night we experienced some form of terrorism on our convoys.”
AFTER HIS year in Iraq, Lee came back to Kansas working in Salina where he trained soldiers readying for deployment. He said his experiences from the first tour have stuck with him.
“You think it doesn’t bother you,” he said. “You don’t realize how much it affected you.”
He said “if or when” you return to normalcy, most soldiers are changed in a way — he was. He saw both positive and negative changes in himself from his experience in the military.
In 2009, Lee was redeployed to Talil, Iraq, with the 169th Corps Support Battalion, promoted from a major to a lieutenant colonel. He said he supervised 19 staff in his first tour, this time he was overseeing around 120 servicemen and women.
“Terror had slowed down at that point,” Lee said. “This time it was fun.”
Lee worked under the same colonel he had in 2004, Rob Schmitt. He viewed Schmitt as a mentor and credits his leadership for his own success today. Their responsibilities were to coordinate shipment of supplies north to Kuwait.
He returned after one year in Talil to Kansas.
LEE HAS worked in the telephone industry since he was very young. His grandfather, Harry Sr., bought LaHarpe Telephone Company.
In March 2012, David, now 50, returned to LaHarpe to help run the telephone business and be with his family. He has two daughters — Adin is 26 and attends Brigham Young University and Tai, 24, attends Allen Community College; he has one son, Austin, 21, who is studying at Kansas State University. David’s wife is Tracy, an instructor at ACC.
He had spent several years away from his family, in Iraq and training soldiers in Salina and Topeka.
“It’s always different to be separated like that,” Lee said.
He is the third of four military generations in his family. His grandfather served in World War II, his father was in the Army Reserve and his son is in the Air Force Reserve.
Serving one’s country now takes a whole different meaning to him. He said he remembers seeing flag-draped coffins on television as a child, and it didn’t register what that really meant.
When you see that (the coffins) now, it sheds a whole different light on what the flag represents,” he said. “It’s an honor and a privilege to join their ranks as a veteran.”
On Saturday, Lee will be meeting with 19 soldiers for pre-deployment interviews — sending them toward service in Afghanistan. What was once something “exciting and new” to Lee now takes a much deeper meaning.
“I never understood, but I was in awe,” he said. “The flag has always been a symbol, but now it has meaning. I am now patriotic.”
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