Lee brothers found SEAL life in their blood
By LORI GILBERT | The Record | Published: September 16, 2018
STOCKTON, Calif. (Tribune News Service) -- The sons and daughters of Abraham Lee, who spent his final years in Stockton, gathered here on Friday to honor one of their siblings.
Mark Lee, the eighth of 10 children, passed away unexpectedly on Aug. 22 in San Jose after suffering a heart episode. He was 55.
Half of the siblings now live in Stockton, but his brother, Jeff, a Veterans Administration chaplain in San Diego, delivered the eulogy.
He could tell stories of Mark from his childhood in Detroit; Newport, Rhode Island; Norfolk, Virginia; and Fremont, to his final days, providing security to PG&E crews working to re-establish power and gas to victims of the Carr Fire in Redding.
Jeff Lee was best suited to speak about his brother, however, because the two served as Navy SEALs, the first African-American brothers to do so, Jeff Lee said.
Black SEALs are a rarity, making up only 2 percent of the elite special operations unit, according to Pentagon statistics provided to USA Today in 2015. Jeff Lee knows of no other black siblings that have served in the unit that was first assembled in 1962, an expansion of the underwater demolition teams used in World War II.
Separated by three years in age -- Jeff Lee joined the Navy out of high school in 1977 and Mark in 1981 -- the two ultimately would serve together on SEAL Team 3 in Coronado for about 18 months.
"Our roles were a little different," Jeff Lee said. "He was a training officer and I was a diving officer. We never deployed together, but we were in the same command and went to school together, advanced demolition school."
That the two would aspire to the military's elite unit, Lee said, was because of their dad, who served as a chaplain's assistant in the China-Burma-India campaign during World War II and worked civil service jobs after.
As boys, Jeff Lee remembers being transfixed by the sight of his dad's military shirt with its badges and insignias.
More than that, however, Abraham taught his children, by example, "to do things differently and explode myths and set new boundaries," Jeff Lee said.
The Lees had moved from the south to Detroit in the late 1940s, Jeff Lee said, and his dad managed their apartment building. When a tenant accidentally discharged a firearm into the floor of Lee's apartment, the patriarch, at the suggestion of a relative living there, moved his family to Newport.
"The first time I saw a Navy ship tied at the Newport base, I knew that's what I was going to be," Jeff Lee said. "There was no doubt about it. The fishing pier was right near the naval war college. You could see the cadets. We lived three blocks from the pier and would go there and go swimming."
An older brother was in the Navy and told stories about travel and adventure, which only enhanced Jeff Lee's desire to join, too.
As he was finishing boot camp, Jeff Lee attended a presentation on the SEAL program, the Navy's special operations force later celebrated for carrying out the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. It appealed to him immediately.
"I like to push myself," Lee said.
His father had taught him about having a work ethic and to acclimate to any weather condition -- including delivering newspapers in snowy Michigan -- and he loved being outside, loved the water.
"My brother, as well," Lee said.
Jeff Lee served 25 years, Mark, 23, retiring as a chief warrant officer. Mark Lee worked for Homeland Security when he left the military. Jeff answered what he said was a calling and became a chaplain. He continues to work with veterans through his chaplaincy in the VA's health care system and recently published a book, "Moral Injury Reconciliation: A Practitioner's Guide for Treat Moral Injury, PTSD, Grief and Military Sexual Trauma through Spiritual Formation Strategies."
Jeff Lee left the military in 2003 but remains dedicated to it through his daily work with veterans and their families.
But Friday was dedicated to his younger brother, the fellow SEAL, the one he grew up with, who delivered newspapers with him in Detroit and threw snowballs at passing cars from the top deck of the minor baseball stadium in Newport with him.
By the time Mark was in high school, the family lived in Fremont and their dad worked at the Alameda Naval Air Station. Mark Lee played football and was a saxophone player in the jazz band at John F. Kennedy High School, and Jeff Lee said he'd been the school's Mr. Titan and received other honors.
As an adult, Mark spent his life protecting others. He is survived by a 16-year-old daughter.
"We acknowledge the loss. We continue to keep him alive by how we live our lives," Jeff Lee said. "This is part of life. Dating back to our faith, we grew up understanding it's not over yet. As we continue to ground ourselves in our faith, we understand we keep him alive through our memories and living well in his honor."
(c) 2018 The Record. Visit The Record at www.recordnet.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.