Lee Roberts is a 2013 New Media Journalism grad currently serving as the Deputy Chief of Public Affairs for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Nashville District.
It’s a long title for someone with an even longer work history.
Lee, now a married father of four and grandfather of six, joined the U.S. Air Force at the age of 18 and retired after nearly 24 years of service. During the first seven of those years, he worked on jets and served in the Gulf War. When he returned to the states, he – and many others in the Air Force – were encouraged to cross-train in other jobs. On a bit of a whim, he applied for one called Public Affairs, and was accepted.
“In January 1992 I went to the Defense Information School,” he says. “I took basic journalism and public affairs courses and started my journey as a military journalist.” As it turned out, it was a journey that would lead him all over the world – from Cuba to Kosovo, and many places between.
Between 1993 and 1994, Lee spent four months at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. In June 1996, those same towers were bombed in a terrorist attack that killed 19 U.S. servicemen and injured nearly 500 others.
“I remember being at that assignment, on that very building, taking pictures,” he says. “Also while I was there, I had to fill in some other duties, such as taking pictures for special investigators. Once, I had to do the photography after a man committed suicide. That was sad, and a bad part of the job, but those kinds of things are real life. The photos weren’t used for anything journalistic, but it was another eye-opening experience.”
From 1996 to 1999, Lee worked as a journalist for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the highest-ranking military general in the United States) at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. “I attended press conferences and traveled with the General, John Shalikashvili, who was a naturalized citizen of Polish descent. When he retired, I went along with him to their embassy when he received an award.”
Lee later traveled to Bosnia with Shalikashvili’s successor, General Henry H. Shelton. “I remember being on a jet with him. He had his own bedroom, but I was sitting in a normal seat, like when you fly coach on a regular airplane. And he came out and started asking me questions about cameras because he wanted to buy his son a camera. Neat things like that made my assignment for the Pentagon fun and interesting.”
In April 1999, Lee moved down to Miami, where he served in the U.S. Southern Command. “I was there when 9/11 occurred. I knew people who were in the Pentagon, and knew at least one person who was killed. The seriousness of serving your country really comes into the forefront at a time like that.”
Shortly after the attacks, Lee was sent to work at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, at a temporary facility called Camp X-Ray that held terrorists. During this time, instead of working as a journalist himself, he escorted citizen journalists in and out of the camp. “When they entered the camp they’d usually get interviews with the commander. We also took them to where the detainees received medical treatments, and even had them go into the camp to see the living conditions.”
“My other duties includes working with the media to file reports, and helping them get whatever else they needed for their stories. To be a small part of that operation right after the attacks was surreal. Meeting national-level reporters, seeing how they worked and operated, how they took their photos, how they set up for interviews … it was a real-world classroom.”
In 2005, Lee was stationed at Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas. “I was on a NATO assignment when I was deployed this time, and spent about four months working for a French general who was in the command of the Kosovo Force. I lived in a camp in Pristina, in what used to be called Yugoslavia, and worked with people from dozens of other countries. I was the only native American English speaker assigned to the office, so I was checking everything that went out, and making sure it was in good English.”
In Pristina, Lee also wrote stories about things like humanitarian missions to send back to the Pentagon. “For instance, we took food and clothing donations to minority communities,” Lee recalls. “I went into one home that had kids playing on the floor, no furniture, no toys. They were just playing with their imagination. We would try to give them a few toys and would often donate our own food that we’d brought for lunch. They’d act as though they’d just won the lottery. I’d see kids with no shoes, and toes sticking out of their socks, and I was thinking of my own kids back home, and would just really appreciate what we have in our country.” (This article’s header photo shows Lee volunteering at Pristina Kosovo Children Center on March 25, 2005.).
Eventually, in 2013, Lee decided to pursue his master’s degree at Full Sail in New Media Journalism. “I probably had a lot of tools by that point that helped me get through the course, but I still found the course valuable and a lot of work. There were a lot of opportunities to learn something new.”
Continuous learning is important to Lee, who strives to pass this ideal along to trainees and peers alike. “Whenever I’m helping to train other journalists, I tell them to imagine that you have a public affairs tool belt on your hip. No matter what you do, it’s never going to get full. And when you obtain experiences in your field – whether it’s leadership, management, practical skills like writing and video editing or photography – those things go in your belt. That way, when you need them, they’re there. And you can be more valuable to your employer – or to your nation.”
Nowadays, in his Nashville-based public affairs position, Lee works on a (mostly) local scale to inform the public about things like development, water and infrastructure management, and recreational safety.
“I try to make work fun,” he says. “The military has probably made me a little regimented, and I always make my deadlines, but I don’t like to be stressed out. The thing I like most about my job is the creativity of it. I like not being tied to my desk, working with different people every day, and learning new things.”
Lee says he used to keep a cartoon cut from an old newspaper at his desk. “It was a picture of a journalist, blindfolded, with a dart in his hand, and he’s about to throw it at a wall. On the wall it says: ‘Today I’m an expert in …’ and it has all these things listed, like biologist, chemist, politician, and so forth. And it’s true. Our job is to go out there in a day, learn about what someone does, and write about it in a way that helps people learn and understand. It’s your job to tell that story. And that’s just fun.”