But today he sees, and hears, “combat” much differently.
The Knox County native, who now lives in Loudon, found out quite by accident that quilting helped his own struggle with post traumatic stress disorder, and he is on a mission to help others, too.
“Combat, as a verb — to fight against PTSD, and all the other things we struggle with,” said Lee, who currently is in the Army Reserves after 10 years of full-time service, and has carved out an identity for himself as the “Combat Quilter.”
As such, he has embraced the Quilts of Valor program, which makes and presents quilts to service men and women worldwide, while also making showstopping quilts of his own, including one, “Shock and Awe,” which depicts the raising of the American flag following the Battle of Iwo Jima.
From combat to relief
Lee did like the work and the structure of the military, and ultimately served two tours in Iraq.
However, he only realized much later its negative impacts.
“Those things they teach you — how to compartmentalize to help you deal with what you see and experience, also cuts off your emotions,” he said.
“I had emotionally flatlined and didn’t enjoy anything. I was also left with anger issues,” Lee added. “I was short with people, I had a temper. My brother finally told me I needed to do something to deal with it. I had no joy and no purpose.”
Thankfully, that “something” became quilting.
“Slowly, I began to realize how much it calmed me, and how it was really my therapy, to help me heal and grow,” he said.
“It was all part of God’s plan,” Lee added. “Most of the time he placed pebbles in my path, but finally, I got to see the stones and He has continued to illuminate them. And he just keeps lighting my path for the great places he has in store for me.”
He found his calling, and his avenue of relief from PTSD, thanks to a mailbox flyer in 2016, offering the chance to quilt a table runner in a group project setting at JoAnn’s Fabrics in West Knoxville.
“I saw a way to make three women happy — my wife (Kristy), my mom and my mother-in-law,” he explained. “It would be a chance for each of us to make a runner for our moms, and spend time together, which my wife had been wanting us to do more of.”
The instructor noted Lee had quite a knack for the craft.
“I told her I had never quilted before, but that I had grown up underneath my mom’s sewing machine. She made all our clothes growing up.”
It was also at that same fabric store where he met two people who would greatly influence him — Dennis and Doyleen Taylor, who lead the North Knoxville Quilts of Valor chapter.
“We met and got to talking, and Dennis asked me to attend the men’s quilting group. Well, my wife came too, and they had tricked me because there, I was given my own Quilt of Valor.
“The mission of Quilts of Valor is to cover service members and veterans touched by war with comfort and healing quilts,” Lee said.
“It was all part of God’s divine plan,” he said, describing how he then felt led to sew his own Quilts of Valor as he not only saw value in that program, but was himself being healed through his projects.
As Veteran’s Day was Monday, Nov. 11, and many commemorations have taken place, it has been a very busy time for Lee, as he has been asked to quilt other’s works on his new long arm quilting machine, purchased for him and donated by a benefactor he refers to as his “Fairy Godmother.”
He had planned to bankroll the machinery by selling “Shock and Awe,” which has won “Viewer’s Choice” at the Smoky Mountain Quilter’s annual quilt show in August, then was displayed at the International Quilt Show in Houston in October, and has since been selected to hang permanently at the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska, where Lee will take part in its induction next year on Veterans Day.
After much prayer and consideration, and with the full support of his wife, Lee gave up his truck driving job in October to work full-time as a long-arm quilter.
So far, he said enough quilts have been commissioned for him to keep current with his bills. He, of course, is continuing to work with Quilts of Valor. He has personally made 36, and quilted nearly 50 others.
“I have seen firsthand what the quilts mean to people who are suffering,” he said. “And I know personally that one made a life and death difference for one of my former fellow soldiers.”
Lee has also found time to start making a new quilt to show next year in Houston, which will be based on the world-famous picture of the raising of the American Flag at Ground Zero following 9-11.
The bottom line
However, his main goal is to offer help and hope to those struggling with PTSD.
“My whole purpose is to help combat veterans to find a therapeutic way to deal with PTSD — something they can put their hands on, and feel a sense of purpose, whether it is woodworking, quilting, a crayon drawing — whatever it may be,” he said. “I learned to find a way to get past it, and I want that for my fellow soldiers, too.”