Piloting a career to new heights

Cindy Liu , Asst. News Editor

Operation Iraqi Freedom III. Fort Hood. Camp Humphreys. In the 17 years she has served in the United States Army, Diamond Bar High School class of 1995 alumna Ashley Lee has risen through the ranks. Her most recent promotion elevated her to lieutenant colonel, the sixth highest rank in the military.

Lee works as part of the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command, where she reviews test plans and acquisition strategies for the Army. Her current office life is a sharp contrast to her position only a year ago: sitting behind the cockpit of the AH-64 Apache Longbow, one of the most lethal attack helicopters in the U.S. Army.

Lee decided to join the military in her sophomore year at UCLA, after she passed by the campus’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps buildings. She initially noticed the striking uniforms and the soldiers undergoing training exercises on the display photos, but a familiar face among the photographed soldiers soon caught her eye—DBHS 1994 alumnus Vincent Lai, who had been on the wrestling team with her brother in high school.

Seeing Lai in the picture showed Lee that it was possible for her to join the army; before, joining the army was never considered a feasible option.

“During that time, the career options for young Asian-Americans weren’t really centered on pursuing one’s own passions or pursuits, but rather on building a secure and financially viable future,” Lee said via email. “Seeing Vince in the picture that day resonated with me about how important visibility is for minority groups and women in different professional fields.”

The following weekend, Lee attended a field training exercise that cemented her decision to join the Army.

She went on to attend Basic Camp at Fort Knox, which involved six weeks of basic training for ROTC cadets, and Airborne School at Fort Benning. More recently, she attended Army’s Command and General Staff College and graduated with honors last year. She also underwent 18 months of training at Fort Rucker, where she spent her days inside the classroom learning about a variety of topics including tactics as well as training for terrain flights and hovering techniques in the Apache.

“I didn’t have any friends or family members who were in the U.S. military. I just didn’t have any exposure to it,” Lee said. “But from the first training exercise to now, it’s always been clear that the Army is a perfect fit for me.”

Since her first introduction to the U.S. Army, Lee was sent on a range of assignments that have shaped her military experience.

In 2005, in the middle of a routine counter mortar reconnaissance interdiction mission, a task involving flying in unpredictable patterns to stop mortar rounds from targeting the base, Lee and an accompanying Apache helicopter on her team were called to respond to a situation in which a civilian helicopter was shot down. As the first coalition force on the spot, Lee remembered witnessing the destruction of the scene.

“I remember looking down at the crash site and seeing the dead bodies of the passengers staggered in all directions about 500 meters from the crash site,” Lee said. “That was the day that the dangers of flying in combat really hit home for me.”

The Apache helicopters that Lee pilots are among the most technologically advanced helicopters in the world. In the cockpit, Lee is constantly multi-tasking. While wearing a helmet that controls sight systems for night vision and target identification with thermal systems, Lee directs the helicopter’s automatic M230 Chain Gun with her line of sight. At the same time, she monitors the aircraft status with a helmet mounted display over her right eye—all while piloting the helicopter with her hands and feet.  

“My favorite part about flying the Apache is knowing the capabilities the aircraft has to influence an operation and support the ground troops,” Lee said. “The mere presence of an Apache in an area can act as a deterrence for the enemy because of its sheer firepower.”

At age 30, Lee was assigned to the U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys near Pyeongtaek, Korea as a company commander with the enormous task of managing eight Apache Longbow helicopters and more than 40 pilots and aircraft mechanics.

“My time as a company commander in Korea was the most challenging time of my career,” Lee said. “The responsibility that the Army places on its young company commanders is pretty daunting.”

Out of the numerous awards and decorations Lee received, the one that she is most proud of is her Bronze Star medal—an award honoring heroic or meritorious service in a combat zone—from her assignment in Iraq. Her other achievements include being inducted into the Order of Saint Michael and receiving the Defense Meritorious Service Medal and the Meritorious Service Medal.

At her recent promotion ceremony at the Pentagon, Lee’s family members, friends—including several alumni from DBHS—and mentors watched in the audience as presiding officer retired Colonel Kevin Berry named her Lieutenant Colonel.

“I felt grateful, blessed, humbled and honored for everyone’s show of support,” Lee said. “The coolest part about the promotion ceremony was that it gave my family an occasion for a reunion.”

In the time Lee spent serving in the U.S Army, the challenge that comes with moving every two to three years for different assignments is also one of her favorite parts of her job.

“It’s difficult to have to move every 2-3 years,” Lee said. “The stress of physically moving at that frequency can be challenging.  However, having an opportunity to live in a new area, to really integrate into a new community at that frequency, also makes you really appreciate the great things that highlight each American city.”

Lee remembers her time at DBHS as an experience that helped her gain a deeper appreciation for community in her life. At DBHS, she was involved in the student council, Academic Decathlon Team and played on the varsity tennis team.

“The teachers, the students, the sports, student activities, school pride, sense of community were all critical to my sense of confidence and responsibility,” Lee said.

With her experience as a DBHS alumna and a military commander, Lee advises students to keep a positive attitude and be active in finding ways to solve challenges in life.

“My advice is: A.C.E.—attitude, creativity, and effort,” Lee said. “Give an honest effort in even the smallest tasks throughout the day.  Excellence is not a part-time job.”