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Feature Stories

NEWS | April 30, 2019

Why I Serve: Purple Heart recipient dedicated to military service

By Spc. Ashton Koller U.S. Army Central Public Affairs Office

“It was mass chaos,” said Staff Sgt. John Lee, 414th Civil Affairs Battalion. “After the bomb went off, I was more focused on getting other people out. I carried several people out before I was told that I had been hit and I was bleeding.”

The Purple Heart is an honorable award in the U.S. armed forces. Awarded in the name of the president, the Purple Heart is presented to those wounded or killed while serving on or after April 5, 1917. Lee, who currently works as a civil affairs planning noncommissioned officer (NCO) with the 414th Civil Affairs Battalion, mobilized in support of U.S. Army Central, is just one of many who have received this award.

Lee started his youthful days in Clawson, Michigan, growing up an only child of a single mother. Lee had to learn a lot on his own from a young age.

“We faced a lot of struggles,” said Lee. “My mother would work two jobs to make ends meet and typically wouldn’t be home until 11 or 12 [a.m.]. I had to take care of myself most of the time while she was working.” 

Throughout school, Lee always made good grades. It wasn’t until his junior year in high school that he started slacking. 

“I fell into the wrong crowd for some reason,” said Lee. “I actually had to go to summer school just so I could graduate.”

It didn’t take long for Lee to discover himself in a slump. He said he needed to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. 

“After high school, I saw everything for me was going downhill,” said Lee. “I was working menial jobs, and I wasn’t where I wanted to be in life. I always thought about joining the military as a kid, because we all grew up watching war movies and said that’s cool.”

Lee started his military career in the Florida Army National Guard in 1993 before transitioning to active duty as an 11B, infantryman, in 1997. Upon re-enlistment, Lee knew exactly what he wanted to do.

“I got offered everything except infantry,” said Lee, in reference to his re-enlistment opportunities. “Going back to all the war movies though, I said no, I wanted to be an infantryman.”

Lee was with several units over the span of six years before he was stationed in Fort Lewis, Washington, with the 24th Infantry Division. It would be with this unit when Lee would go on his first combat tour in 2004.

“It seemed to be a normal day,” said Lee. “It was around Christmas time and my platoon sergeant convinced me to come share a meal with them and socialize. It was that day, at the end of our meal that the suicide bombing happened.”

A suicide bomber found his way inside of the Mosul dining facility before detonating his vest, killing 22 people and injuring many others, including Lee. 

“He had ball bearings inside of his vest, approximately quarter sized,” said Lee. “Training immediately kicked in, and I just tried to get as many people out as I could.”

Lee was focused on others; he did not know that he was hit by the shrapnel.

“One of those ball bearings penetrated my boot and tore up my foot,” said Lee. “A lieutenant walked over and told me I was bleeding. I didn’t even know. I found it lodged in the back of my boot, and I still have it today.”

Upon his return from Iraq, Lee decided to get out of the Army in 2005. After six years out of uniform, he realized how much he missed the camaraderie of the military. He found out from a recruiter the Army was not taking prior service into active duty. He joined the Army Reserve as a supply sergeant with the 952nd Quartermaster Company in Livonia, Michigan.

“I realized that after I got out that I really missed the Army,” said Lee. “The friends that you meet today become family, and you can’t get that anywhere else.”

Lee was neighbors with the first sergeant of a drill sergeant unit. The first sergeant was able to get Lee to come into the unit with him. After some time with the drill sergeants, Lee and the first sergeant moved to the 414th Civil Affairs Battalion, which is based out of Southfield, Michigan. 

Capt. Jermareo McDaniel, commander, 414th Civil Affairs Battalion, met Lee four years ago when McDaniel joined the unit. Civil affairs Soldiers travel to assess any situations that may arise in order to build rapport with the United States’ unified action partners and help through projects designed to bring a better quality of life to that region. 

“He has always been a motivated NCO and dedicated to the mission,” said McDaniel. “He brings a lot of added value to the unit with his prior service active duty time with a combat tour.”
Aside from being a dedicated Soldier, Lee is also a dedicated family man. 

“He is also a great husband and father,” McDaniel said. “He functions as a stay-at-home dad to help progress his wife's career and ensure his young children have a good upbringing.”
Lee, now on his third deployment in his military career, faced hardships after his arrival to Kuwait.

“Within one week of arriving in Kuwait, Staff Sgt. Lee received a Red Cross message of his stepfather being gravely ill,” said McDaniel. “Despite the imminent loss of his stepfather, Staff Sergeant Lee remained steadfast to the mission and immediately returned to Kuwait with high spirits after handling his family matters at home.”

Suffering a family tragedy is hard for a lot of people, including Lee. After his commander tried to allow him more time with his family to grieve, Lee decided he needed to be back in Kuwait as soon as he could.

“My stepdad and I were very close,” said Lee. “He was the guy I could go to for anything. It was definitely hard for me, but there is a job I need to do here. Despite the loss, I knew I needed to get back soon.”

Being dedicated to his service for the country, Lee hopes to continue serving as long as he can, so he can help set a good example for his two sons, Hunter and Jakob, and his daughter, Chelsea.

“I want to stay in until they kick me out for old age,” said Lee. “I have a few more years until I hit my 20-year retirement letter, but I’m just going to stay in as long as I can. 

“I love this job. I love being a part of something greater than me. I just want to be able to have a good foundation for myself and my kids. I want to give them something good to live up to, tell them my experiences and how much being in the military helps with your life.”