In late 2003, Maj. Gen. Robert G.F. Lee, the head of the Hawaii National Guard, spent Christmas in Afghanistan with aviation maintenance soldiers.
Since then, he’s been on 10 other trips to Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2006 he was on a rainy and soggy Kauai after Ka Loko Reservoir’s dam broke, spilling 300 million gallons of water in a torrent that raced downstream to the sea. Seven people died.
In 2007 Lee and then-Gov. Linda Lingle met with the defense minister of Indonesia in Jakarta at the start of an ongoing state partnership between the National Guard and the largest Muslim-population country in the world.
As adjutant general of the Hawaii Department of Defense, Lee is the director of state Civil Defense and homeland security adviser to the governor, and provides support to the Office of Veterans Services.
With so many hats to wear, he’s been busy. In the eight years in the post, he hasn’t taken a week of vacation.
But today, those hats start to come off, and he’ll get to unwind. Or try to.
Lee, 62, will transfer authority as adjutant general to Maj. Gen. Darryll D.M. Wong in a ceremony at 2 p.m. today at the 29th Infantry Brigade Combat Team headquarters in Kalaeloa.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed Wong, the former commander of the Hawaii Air National Guard, to the Cabinet-level position.
After that, "first priority, keep peace in the family. Go on a good vacation," Lee said from his still-cluttered office across from Diamond Head.
His wife, Judi, "is making detailed plans," he said. "She hasn’t told me anything."
Lee retires on March 1 from a 39-year Army Reserve and National Guard career. The nuclear engineer also spent 28 years at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, ending up as superintendent of nuclear regional maintenance.
Those who know him say Lee took the Hawaii National Guard to a new level of international importance. As an example, the Hawaii Air Guard is the only such unit in the nation to fly F-22 Raptors, the Air Force’s premier fighter.
The Air Guard has four of the stealth fighters, two more are expected in February and the remaining 14 are projected to arrive through fiscal 2011. The jets likely will be sent to Guam and Japan periodically.
There’s been "no lack of excitement in this job the past eight years," Lee said. "But it has been fun."
He added, "The way we do business in Hawaii, the partnership-building to work together to accomplish missions and goals, is very worthwhile, and the cooperation is just terrific."
Lee and the National Guard have maintained a high profile over the past eight years, and that will continue in the future, whether through deployments or humanitarian relief missions.
"Adjutant General Bob Lee oversaw the unprecedented transformation of Hawaii’s National Guard, made up of ‘citizen soldiers,’ into an equal partner with the regular military in the wartime defense of our country," Lingle said yesterday in a statement. "He is among the most respected state adjutant generals in the nation. He always advocated for Hawaii’s best interest, especially for the soldiers and airmen under his command. He and his wife, Judi, also concerned themselves at all times with the National Guard families, which is something I respected them for immensely because few recognize the real sacrifice made by the families of America’s military members."
Lingle also noted Lee’s support for the expansion of the Youth Challenge Academy and other programs for at-risk youth.
"It has been a true privilege to work side by side with General Lee in both good times and tough times."
The Honolulu-raised University of Hawaii graduate came in as "TAG" (the adjutant general) during wartime, and he leaves during wartime, with the 29th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of more than 2,000 Hawaii-based soldiers next eligible to deploy in 2014.
The 29th Brigade went to Iraq and Kuwait in 2005 and late 2008.
In a statement yesterday, Lee offered these sentiments to his fellow Guard members:
"It has been an extreme honor and privilege to have served with the men and women of the Hawaii National Guard these past eight years. You have answered the call to duty by our state and nation, served in harm’s way in Iraq, Afghanistan, Horn of Africa, and southern Philippines with distinction, and have excelled in all your missions. I want also to thank the families of our troops for their sacrifices and understanding and the many employers for their unwavering support of our soldiers and airmen."
Hawaii Air Guard and active duty Air Force pilots and crews fly and maintain the F-22 Raptor, C-17 cargo carriers and KC-135R refueling tankers — all of which are heavily in demand.
A total of about 2,980 citizen soldiers are part of the Army National Guard, and 2,500 are part of the Air Guard, officials said. The Hawaii National Guard has a $400 million budget, 91 percent of which comes from the federal government, Lee said.
About 60 individuals are part of Civil Defense and Homeland Security. Over the past eight years, $180 million has come into the state for homeland security, Lee said.
The Hawaii National Guard has had a partnership program with the Philippines for years, and groups of about 40 soldiers are sent on continuous rotations to Jolo in the south of the country to help with counterterrorism efforts, officials said.
Indonesia came to Hawaii seeking a partnership, and the program started in 2007.
"It was so interesting because at that time political relations with the U.S. were not nearly as good as they are today," Lee said. "I found it very ironic that (Indonesia) says, ‘Hey, America, we’re not your partner or ally, (but) Hawaii — no problem.’ That was the attitude."
The multiculturalism of Hawaii and outreach efforts by the East-West Center may have helped bridge the gap, Lee said.
Once or twice a year, groups of about 100 Hawaii National Guard soldiers deploy to Indonesia, where they help train that country’s soldiers in peacekeeping.
To help with the 2009 tsunami in American Samoa, medical supplies and troops were sent on C-17s.
"Thank goodness for C-17s," Lee said. "Within 24 hours, we had an emergency team heading on down there with National Guard and Reserve troops."
The biggest near-term challenge for Wong, his successor, will be the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit scheduled to be held in Honolulu in November, Lee said. The National Guard will provide security.
Lee still has to clear out his office so Wong can move in.
The numerous mementos of his shipyard and military career waiting to be packed include a model of the submarine USS Hawaii, two C-17 models, an Indonesian puppet, a miniature camel from Iraq, a Franco Harris Steelers football helmet from a golf fundraiser and four black remembrance bracelets for soldiers killed in action.
Lee said he’s considering options for what to do next after a 39-year Army and shipyard career, but he plans to remain in Hawaii.
The two-star jokingly calls himself an "overcooked general."
"Time for younger guys like Darryll (Wong) to move up," he said.