Lee, 40, is the governor’s new military affairs liaison, a position created by the Legislature last session to assist with community relations involving the military and state government.
His job can include everything from dealing with quarantine issues for the pets of military families to understanding community concerns about fuel leaks at Red Hill and working to prevent them in the future.
“We’re honored to have Tom filling this first-ever position for Hawai‘i,” said Gov. Ige.
“He’s a daily reminder in our office of how much he and others have sacrificed so the rest of us can have the freedoms we enjoy.”
Lee said after speaking with the governor, “I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of. I want to listen and learn . . . to help strengthen the relationship between state agencies, the military and the community in ways that can move Hawai‘i forward — nationally and internationally.”
He also said he wanted to honor the legacy of the late U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye in recognizing the vital role of the military in the islands.
Lee’s own inspiring story is one of bravery and perseverance, even though he would be too modest to call it that. A 1993 Moanalua High School graduate, he joined the Navy and was honorably discharged in April 1999. He was working on his college degree when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked Sept. 11, 2001.
Those tragedies and a sense of duty compelled him to re-enlist — this time in the Army — but before he could deploy, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. After successful treatment, he went on to serve in Afghanistan. However, his next deployment in 2007 to Taji, Iraq, near Baghdad nearly cost him his life.
‘It was 8 in the morning when my crew and I came under small arms fire,” he recalled. “Children were walking on the road on their way to school. After we shielded them so they could hide in a nearby building, an IED was detonated under our vehicle. We lost two brave men in my unit that day.”
Lee received a Purple Heart based on the severe injuries he suffered, including a severed brachial artery and amputation of his right leg above the knee.
Although he has managed a successful transition to civilian life, does Lee worry about his fellow vets who have challenges with PTSD and other issues?
“Yes, I’ve lost more friends to suicide than I lost in combat,” he replied quietly. “But I want to tell vets and anyone else who may be facing life as an amputee — just have a sense of purpose and take advantage of the services out there. You can overcome anything.”
As an example of that, Lee recently decided to challenge himself further by competing in paratriathlons of swimming, biking and running. He said he tries to live by this personal motto: “Improve tomorrow what you’ve done today.”
Read more of our November issue here.