Jeff Lee said it’s OK to call him a “geek.” As an Information Technology manager at Intel evidently it’s an appropriate handle. But Lee’s more than that. He’s a “warrior geek.”
The Army Reserve 1st Sergeant recently returned to his El Dorado Hills home to his wife and children after a tour of duty in Afghanistan where he ran a team of other techies designing, engineering, installing and commercializing “data centers”and all manner of IT infrastructure. Stationed at a base in Kabul for most of his tour, he called his camp “rank heavy, because as a headquarters base there were multiple general officers there. It was just across from the U.S. Embassy in the heart of Kabul.”
The base was home to a large mix of all services and civilian contractors and was heavily protected by concrete walls and “sniper screens,” he said. Despite those features Lee said he survived a “few close calls from rocket attacks, including one inside the compound that didn’t detonate.”
Home in Kabul, what he called an “enduring location,” was an Alaskan tent (an oval dome with a wood floor) “with 15 of my closest friends. But elsewhere it could have been a cot on the sand or just on the sand.”
Now pushing 43, Lee joined the Army Reserves at 25, primarily to pursue a career change. Despite a degree in geography from Cal State Fullerton, he spent a number of years in the food and beverage business and found the Reserves could guarantee him IT and telecommunications training.
“I wish I’d done it sooner than 25,” Lee said.
After joining, he completed a six-month Advanced Individual Training (IT related) program at the U.S. Army Signal Center at Fort Gordon, Ga., which led to an opportunity at Intel where he has worked for 11 years. Lee gives a shout-out to his company for an “incredible amount of support” for him and his family, as well as for several co-workers who are on active duty. “They were awesome.”
During his years with Intel, Lee has been deployed for more than a year in Kuwait and Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom and the 16 month tour he just ended. He plans to finish 20 years in the Reserves and frankly noted, “It would be great if this was my last deployment.” Over that, he acknowledges he has little control.
Although Lee’s home unit is the 319th Signal Battalion based in Sacramento, he was transferred to the 335th Signal Command in Atlanta for several months leading up to the Afghanistan deployment. Now, he said, his home unit is preparing for deployment and he’s not sure if that includes him. Because of the strain it would put on the family, he called it a “cause of stress.”
The toll deployment takes on the family is not lost on those going off to exotic climes.
“It’s harder on the families,” Lee noted. “I’ve got someone to do my laundry and fix my food. Kathy basically became a single mom, and at times it’s very stressful, but you do what you have to do. When I’m calling or Skyping, I try to keep it light. We did a lot of Skyping since I had easy access. When you’re in communications you take care of yourself first,” he quipped.
Married for 18 years, “Kathy was a girl from the rival high school in Southern California,” Jeff joked. They have a son Ryan, 15, a student at Ponderosa, and Marisa, 13, who goes to Pleasant Grove Middle School and competes in gymnastics with All-Star Gymnastics & Cheer based in Diamond Springs. They respond very differently to dad’s absence, Kathy said.
“Ryan internalizes it more and takes on a more parental role. Marisa is the emotional one,” she explained.
Jeff is candid about fighting a war in a foreign country.
“It sucks! It’s stressful, and mentally exhausting,” he said. “It was a high-tempo schedule and there was never a day off. There was not one day when I was out of uniform.”
Jeff said he and his comrades “don’t talk about winning or losing.”
“I make the best contribution I can and try to stay focused on my job,” he explained. “You get up every day and go to work. It’s not my job to think of anything bigger than that.”
The morning commute, however, was hardly typical. His team always traveled in an armored Chevy Suburban manned by a full-time combat driver and Jeff’s everyday equipment included 40-pound body armor, an M-9 pistol and an M-16 rifle.
“We always carried weapons and traveled in groups and always had to be on guard. You could never completely trust anyone in a local uniform,” he said. “The streets of Kabul are very interesting. Every shop had a dead animal hanging in the window, and there’s a huge volume of traffic — donkey carts, pedestrians, motorcycles with truck bodies — you go as fast as you can and don’t stop for anything. Scary stuff at times.”
He counted himself fortunate at never having to “fire in anger.”
Jeff said it took a while to acclimate to the elevation of Kabul at 6,000 feet above sea level — very hot in summer and very cold in winter. “It’s important to maintain a high level of physical fitness in that environment,” he said.
Jeff has photos of the terrain surrounding Kabul; it could rival the Los Angeles basin circa 1960. A broad valley enclosed by steep mountains, Jeff said, “The air quality is horrible because the people burn everything, morning and evening, just for heat.”
Despite the many negatives of serving in a far-off war, Jeff was practically living a course in international relations. He said he appreciated the opportunity to meet and work with a wide variety of people — French, British and Belgian NATO troops, lots of Special Forces, private contractors, a lot of female soldiers and Afghanis employed at the base. He keeps in e-mail contact with friends he made there.
“It was interesting and challenging, and it was good to see all the other troops participating,” Jeff said. “It was my first opportunity to work with members of the other services. And the closed environment was a good opportunity to come in contact with lots of people you wouldn’t otherwise know.”
He expressed particularly high regard for the Navy’s SeaBees, who “build everything,” and several Air Force officers he was tasked to instruct in advanced IT programs. “They were great in training, and in technical fields higher rank does not equate to higher knowledge.”
Morale was mostly good, he added. His location made a difference as he noted that there are “a lot worse places to be.”
As much as his environment was controlled, Jeff said his contact with the local people was generally positive and they were “very nice and humble for the most part.” He worked with Afghani vendors, electricians and telecom engineers employed at the base, and mutual respect was an important aspect of their working relationships.
First Sgt. Jeff Lee, soon to be Master Sgt. Jeff Lee, is taking some time off before returning to his job at Intel.