Remembering the little people
Military | A Coast Guard officer known for defending religious liberty in the military points to others in his retirement speech
by J.C. Derrick
Posted on Saturday, August 13, 2016, at 7:56 am
YORKTOWN, Va.—Earlier this month I attended the U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area change of command and retirement ceremony for Vice Adm. William “Dean” Lee.
If that name sounds familiar, you may recall that Lee delivered riveting remarks on religious freedom during the 2013 National Day of Prayer event at the U.S. Capitol. He vowed to continue openly discussing his faith and provided first-hand evidence in an ongoing public debate about religious freedom in the military.
“I fully expected I would get fired when I walked off the stage that day,” Lee told several hundred people gathered under an open-air tent at the Coast Guard Training Center on the banks of the York River. “I kept waiting for the hatchet and it never came.”
Rather than a hatchet, Lee earned a promotion: In May 2014 he assumed command of the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area, which spans from the Rocky Mountains eastward, all the way to the Arabian Gulf. Lee became the third-highest-ranked Coast Guard officer.
Based on the glowing reviews other speakers gave Lee’s character, leadership, and work ethic, it was easy to see how he rose to such heights. Adm. Paul Zukunft, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, praised Lee for leaving the Coast Guard at the same weight as when he entered 35 years ago, his affability, frequent handwritten notes, and consistent humility.
“You will never see Adm. Lee strutting,” Zukunft said.
It would have been easy to understand if Lee had used his retirement address to wax on about his impressive career, which included seven commands, but he instead spent a large portion of his time honoring others.
“The people I admire most are mostly the little people,” Lee said. “It is a man or woman’s character that I admire.”
The audience sat in rapt attention, sometimes laughing and sometimes brushing away tears, as Lee paid tribute to chaplains, executive assistants, and others who do vital but unheralded work. He recognized a pastor in the crowd who once voluntarily cleaned up the mess after a soldier committed suicide, so that others wouldn’t have to do it.
Lee told the story of one petty officer who grew up in Sierra Leone, missed three years of high school, and still managed to graduate on time. The young man couldn’t swim when he went to college, but he learned how, and then started swimming competitively. Now he’s working on a master’s degree.
“That’s a young man who knows how to overcome challenges,” Lee thundered, as he pointed to the officer and the crowd broke into applause.
Lee noted he was never the one reaching into the sea to save a life and credited the Coast Guard personnel who do risk their lives. Lee told of a young seaman, Amanda Wolf, who had resuscitated an unresponsive 2-year-old who had fallen into Lake Michigan only two weeks prior. In his final official act, he summoned Wolf to the stage for recognition.
“On behalf of all the officers who always—always—take the credit for the great work you guys do, I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, I admire you,” Lee said.
Before exiting, Lee closed his remarks with the words of Ecclesiastes 12:13: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”
May the rest of us do our duty half as well as Vice Adm. Dean Lee did in service to his country.
J.C. is a former reporter and editor for WORLD.