Risking his three stars

Q&A | Retired Coast Guard Vice Adm. William ‘Dean’ Lee’s principled stand for religious liberty in the military
by J.C. Derrick
Posted 1/28/17, 08:08 am

“Faith in the military took center stage Thursday at the 62nd observance of the National Day of Prayer in Washington, D.C, as lawmakers and faith leaders gathered on Capitol Hill.”

That was the lead paragraph of WORLD’s May 2013 article on the gathering that made U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. William “Dean” Lee (later promoted to vice admiral) known beyond military circles (see a video of the speech above).

Here’s more from that report by J.C. Derrick:

“Lee told the crowd he had 10 minutes of carefully prepared remarks, but he decided to leave them in his chair and ‘speak from the heart’ instead. Lee, who described himself as ‘a man of deep abiding faith who happens to wear a uniform,’ went on to defy any efforts to stop military personnel from openly sharing their Christian faith.

“Lee mentioned last year’s record high number of military suicides, 349—roughly one per day—and said every 65 minutes a military veteran will take his or her own life. ‘I want you to remember that number,’ he said.

“He recounted a recent meeting with a 24-year-old sailor who had attempted suicide but survived his self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Lee said when he heard the man’s story, he knew the rules said he should send the man to a chaplain, but his heart said to give him a Bible.

“‘The lawyers tell me that if I do that, I’m crossing the line,’ Lee said. ‘I’m so glad I’ve crossed that line so many times.’

“Lee pledged not to back down from ‘my right under the Constitution to tell a young man that there is hope.’

“Lee received several standing ovations during his brief remarks. He requested prayer for Christian military personnel to ‘weather the storm that I am almost certain will come.’”

Here’s an excerpt from J.C.’s recent interview with Dean Lee, where he talks about that day in May 2013 and the risk he took in taking a stand for religious liberty in the military. —Marvin Olasky

U.S. Coast Guard Vice Adm. William “Dean” Lee retired last August with the largest operational command in the Coast Guard—an area stretching from the Rocky Mountains eastward to the Arabian Gulf. I recently visited Lee’s home overlooking the Chesapeake Bay to discuss his career and his 2013 National Day of Prayer speech.

Did you grow up loving the water? Yes. My dad loved to fish, as did his father. I spent many summers down at a little place called Topsail Island, N.C. It’s where I caught my first fish. I’ve been hooked ever since.

What’s your favorite Coast Guard memory? My favorite memories are when we succeeded at something that was hard—saving somebody’s life. Although I was never the person who actually yanked them out of the water, I often got to tell the family, “We got your loved one, and they’re safe and sound.” There’s no price you can put on a privilege like that.

What’s your best leadership advice? Lead like you want to be led, follow like you want to be followed, and don’t forget your family.

How were you chosen to represent the military for the 2013 National Day of Prayer? A friend nominated me. I said I’d do it out of a sense of duty. I didn’t want to because I knew there might be some danger associated with it. Any senior officer is aware of lines you can’t cross on expression of faith, or you’ll have one of these watchdog groups coming after you. I knew speaking at that event in uniform would probably draw the ire of one or more of those groups.

What happened at the event? Each of the warm-up speakers had gone over, so when they got to me, there were only two or three minutes left. The moderator told me, “I’m sorry, Admiral, but we don’t have time to get to you before the keynote. We’re going to flip-flop you and Pastor Greg Laurie.” What I heard: “I’m sorry, Admiral, we don’t have time for you today.” I set my notes down and listened to Pastor Laurie give a phenomenal sermon. He ended right at noon, and everybody’s clapping. Then Dr. James Dobson starts to introduce me. I can’t tell you the panic that ensued in my head, because I didn’t think I was speaking. I felt something telling me to leave the notes and speak from the heart—so I did. I walked off the stage 14 minutes, 25 seconds later quite certain that I was going to be fired.

What was your message? I threw down hard about the erosion of religious liberty in the military. There is a seed of fear that’s been planted through the years, and it’s been growing so that now you’re almost afraid to say anything about your faith. I had refused to do that because as a man of faith I feel like I need to take my faith with me into the workplace. I’m against proselytizing in the workplace, but as a leader, sometimes you’ve got somebody in your office who is down and out, and I felt compelled to tell them the only answer to their problem: Go to God. I would say grace in my own mess (a kitchen where officers eat), but I asked if anyone had any problems with me giving thanks. Nobody ever did. I had a Bible on my desk for the last half of my career, including multiple commands. It was important to me because that Bible made a statement about who I am, and it also made a statement to anyone coming in my office: It’s OK to talk about it in here, if you want to.

How did the audience respond? Within a minute I had a standing ovation. And then another standing ovation. That kept feeding the beast, and the clock kept ticking. After the event, as my wife and I ate lunch, we started to get giddy, because we knew now we’re probably going to get to retire. By the time I went back to work the next Monday, my remarks were being passed around prolifically on all forms of social media. I was starting to get inundated with emails, and some people wanted my head. But for every one of them, there were 10 people expressing support.

Did trouble come? I knew I was going to see the commandant [Admiral Robert Papp Jr.] because I was stationed at headquarters, and every morning we had an operations brief. As we broke up from the meeting, the commandant made eye contact and started walking over toward me. The other admirals parted like the Red Sea. I’m thinking: Here it comes. What happened in those few moments is one of the greatest displays of leadership that I experienced in 35 and a half years of active duty: He reached his hand out, shook mine, and said, “How are you doing, Dean?” I said, “I’m doing fine, Admiral. How are you doing?” He goes, “I’m doing well.” Then he looked at me and said, “You have a great day.” Nothing else was ever said about it. I presume he was taking some heat from within the government, but he never worried me with any of it.

Can more religious freedom help battle the high rate of suicides in the military? It’s a great tool. If we train a ready force of men and women that we may have to send to war, but don’t also make them spiritually fit, we are failing them and we are failing our country. I’ll never deviate from that view, and I don’t care how many watchdog groups are out there nipping at our heels.

What’s the solution? Adhere to the Constitution. It is a beautiful document. I love the way our Founding Fathers wrote the First Amendment: Congress shall enact no law respecting the establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free practice thereof. You practice whatever faith you want. I loved serving with men and women of all faiths and no faith. If someone wants to practice or talk about their faith in the workplace, as long as they’re not proselytizing or discriminating, then it should be OK.

And you were willing to risk your career for that freedom? Before moving to three-star [vice admiral], you have to take a course called Pinnacle, and there they told us to think about what principle we would be willing to throw your stars on the table for. Within a few months, I found that principle: religious liberty. I knew it the day I walked up on that podium at the National Day of Prayer. I was willing to throw my stars on the table over that. I would have accepted whatever happened in the aftermath.

But it didn’t come to that. About a year after the speech, after a change in commandants, I was selected to be the Atlantic Area commander. It shocked me. Although I was grateful to be considered, I didn’t think I’d ever get through Senate confirmation. But I got confirmed and served as a three-star—the greatest privilege in my life.

J.C. Derrick

J.C. is a former reporter and editor for WORLD.

Read more from this writer


You must be a WORLD Member and logged in to the website to comment.
  •  Neil Evans's picture
    Neil Evans
    Posted: Sat, 01/28/2017 01:50 pm

    Thank you!!!

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Sun, 01/29/2017 04:27 am

    Wow!! Inspiring. There is something here for everyone. And of course me.

  • Hans's picture
    Posted: Sun, 01/29/2017 05:45 am

    I think that this is a great story about how overblown the supposed threat to religious liberty in the military actually is. It is literally a story about how a commander spoke openly about his faith and nothing happened and nobody in his chain condemned him for it, and then he was promoted to be a three star Admiral, which of course requires Senate approval, and that wasn't a problem either. He had a great career, treated people with respect, and was respected in turn. Sounds like a happy series of events all around.

  • Hans's picture
    Posted: Mon, 01/30/2017 05:35 am

    I have served in the military, and it is a key part of my duty to deal directly with issues related to religious freedom. Of course I am not a flag officer, though I have received instruction on this issue directly from the Chief of Chaplains of the USAF, who happens to be an evangelical flag officer responsible for promoting and safeguarding religious liberty in the entire USAF.


    That said, the main complicating issue in this case deals with the fact that he was a commander, which is a tricky issue, given the level of authority that he has over the people under him. The restrictions on religious expression from commanders are more stringent than they are for general service members, becasue a commander has legal authority over those under him or her, and they also have the authority to send troops into combat. Because of this, expressions of religious commitment from commanders towards their subordinates are usually frowned on, lest it lead to unprofessional relationships where the commander gives the appearance of favoring those of one religious commitment over another. One can imagine how uncomfortable we might (rightly) be if a commander of another religion were inviting service members into his office and handing out his holy book--the Koran or the Book of Mormon, for example. It's unprofessional under ordinary circumstances, and it puts the subordinate in an extremely difficult position, given the level of authority that the commander has over them. However, in this case, I assume that the main reason things were not an issue is because this was not an ordinary circumstance--the Admiral was trying to help a suicidal individual, which is different from general proselytising. My point, then, was not that there are no complicating factors here, but merely that this is a story about how the system and good common sense worked together to promote religious liberty. It is a happy story, and there are no martyrs. And yes, reports about Obama's "tyranny" on these issues are hyperinflated.

  • Hans's picture
    Posted: Mon, 01/30/2017 05:55 am

    I should add that I am not trying to denigrate Admiral Lee's actions here. It's still a risky move because every move by a flag officer is highly political. In that sense, his decision in this case is admirable in part because he decided to forget about politics and just do what he thought was right. He acted like a good man and a moral leader, which is commendable. On the other hand, a lot of the time the military does a semi-decent job of rewarding good men and moral leaders, which is exactly what happened in this case. If his commander took some heat because he got a call from some Congressman or something of that nature, he also exercised good moral leadership by saying something along the lines of, "thank you for your concern, Congressman; I want to assure you we do support the religious liberty of subordinates, but also believe that the Admiral in this case was acting in good faith in a sensitive situation, properly assessed the disposition of the suicidal servicemember, and did not violate the rights of the individual in question, who has raised no complaint of any kind." Of course, no commander likes to get calls from Congressmen, since they too are hoping for promotions, which is why they generally frown on their subordinates making decisions that lead to those calls, even if no rules were technically broken. This is the political side of the military--people often make decisions based on what will make them look good to their commander, not on what is actually best. So again, in that sense, the actions of both admirals in this story are commendable because they set aside political concerns and made good decisions. But at the end of the day, the system worked like it is supposed to work, and the Senate confirmed Admiral Lee's promotion, and religious liberty prevails.

  • VSKluth's picture
    Posted: Mon, 01/30/2017 07:31 pm

    Thanks, Admiral, for standing firm on behalf of your Superior Commander.  The Lord will bless the stance.  (And thanks, JC, for covering this great story!)

  • Sawgunner's picture
    Posted: Wed, 02/01/2017 03:13 pm

    God bless this great chaplain.

    I have had great experiences with some awesome chaplains but those are not the average. Fear of retribution or muzzling has led to overly cautious "self-muzzling" by many. You would think that a chaplain of any faith would want his airmen sailors soldiers or marines (or Coasties) to know all they can about the sects and premises of Islam. But not so.

    World ran a splendid series some years back. I left it at the chapel tent and they were mysteriously "disappeared" by a chaplain who exemplified the type of seminary grad who goes into the military when no civilian church would hire him.

  • RSKnopp
    Posted: Sat, 02/04/2017 08:14 am

    Well done, good and faithful servant, well done!!

  • PaulC
    Posted: Sun, 12/31/2017 08:27 pm

    This reminds me of the scripture passage where the Lord tells Samuel, Those who honor me, I will honor.  1 Samuel 2:30.  Praise God!  Thank you Lord for this brother, thank you for this article.