OKEECHOBEE — Veteran Tessa Lee was born in Okeechobee in 1981 to Teri Mixon Lee and Shannon Lee and said she knew she wanted to join the Army as early as middle school. She knew the type of jobs available in Okeechobee, and the agriculture life was not really for her. She was only a C-average student, so she knew the military would be her path. She describes herself as real feisty when she was in school and said she even graduated late because she was always fighting. “I wanted to join the Army, because it was a little rough around the edges, like myself,” she said. She never even considered the other branches.
She signed up with a recruiter about a year before she graduated in 2000. It was a delayed program where they wait until you graduate before sending you off to boot camp. She joined as a military police officer and trained at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. She was there from August until January completing her training and was then sent to her first duty station, which was in Korea. “At the ripe old age of 19, I was headed overseas to Korea,” she said. She loved it there.
When she came back to the States a year later, she was stationed in Colorado at Fort Carson.
There are two types of jobs for the military police, she explained. There are those who have garrison duty, do regular patrols and write tickets. That was not what she did. She was considered a skilled MP or a combat MP. She spent all her time combat training. They were trained on all the different weapon systems. “Basically, we prepared for deployment,” she said.
Her first deployment was in August 2002, and she was sent to Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba. This was not long after 9/11, and all the prisoners were kept there from Iraqi and Afghanistan wars. While there, they did what are called Air Bridge Missions. This meant they flew from Cuba to Afghanistan, picked up prisoners and flew them back. “That was pretty interesting. Loading up Afghani prisoners and having to fly with them in big combat planes back to the States,” she said. She worked at the prison, but the camp they stayed in was called Camp America. Cuba was so beautiful, she said. They were right on the beach, where the water was turquoise blue. “To be such a rough place to work and have such a hard job, it was definitely balanced by the beauty.” When they had down time, they could go to the beach or have parties, barbecues and cookouts. They did not have a lot of off time, though, as they worked 12 days on and had two days off.
Working with the prisoners was what she joined the military to do — law enforcement. Although it was what she wanted to do, it was still scary, she said. She was 5 foot 2 inches and 130 pounds and was responsible for escorting prisoners, walking them around in chains. “The prison, back then, was like sheds with open sides almost like cage material on them,” she said. “Kind of like open air sheds.” It was not like prisons here. They were open to the elements, and when it rained, it would blow in on them. It was very hot, and it smelled terrible because it was filled with sweaty men, she said. When she was there, there was no abuse, although over the years there have been reports of abuse at one time or another. They were well taken care of despite the living accommodations. They were fed their native foods and they were permitted to pray, and the prison even sounded the prayer over the intercom for the men who were of the Muslim faith. There were even arrows in their cells indicating which direction they should face for the prayer. They were given a Koran and a head covering.
It’s against their religion to really look at females and interact with them, so overall, she had a little easier time than the men did, because they did not talk to her or really even look at her. Although they did have a cell for the mentally ill, and no one was exempt from having a prisoner spit on them or throw urine at them in that area. Working in the hospital was also difficult, because a lot of them came over with tuberculosis or some other illness. So, all in all, Cuba was interesting. It was a mix of a very difficult job and a very beautiful place to spend your time off, she said.
She served as a prison guard for about nine months before being deployed to Camp Victory in Iraq. They spent a lot of time escorting distinguished visitors. Any time important people visited the base, they escorted them. They also did a lot of prison escorts of people who were captured during the war. They patrolled the Iraqi marketplaces and other similar duties. They did sometimes receive small arms fire but they did not lose anyone during her deployment. Iraq was a big culture shock, she said. Camp Victory was built around one of Saddam Hussein’s mansions, and they were allowed to go in and tour it. “It was just stunning,” she said. Her platoon lived in an old Iraqi home. It was dilapidated and almost like a shack. “There were a lot of rats and scorpions. It was just gross.” They did daily patrols, inside and outside the camp, and when outside the camp, they patrolled the Iraqi marketplaces. Normal Iraqi life was still going on outside their camp. They were in an Iraqi community. They got a lot of glares as they patrolled the marketplace or neighborhoods from many who did not want them there, even though much of their mission was peacekeeping — protecting the people of the community. “But still, you’re kind of an invader.” One exception was when they patrolled the neighborhoods of the poor. Those people were always happy to see them and ran out of their houses to greet them. Ms. Lee was a gunner, and one of the most memorable things for her was seeing the looks of shock on the faces of the women who saw her on top of the truck with a 50-caliber machine gun. “Women over there are treated a lot different than women in America,” she said.
She finished that tour in 2004 and finished her career at Fort Carson. She was discharged in 2007 after serving almost seven years.
She still works for the government. She began by working in Army mental health for eight years and then three years for the Department of Veterans Affairs. For the VA, she worked in telehealth medicine. She helped facilitate long-distance appointments. She was kind of like a medical assistant, she explained. For the last two years, she has worked as a benefits counselor for the Air Force.
She misses Okeechobee a lot, she said, but after her divorce, she did not want to take her daughter away from her father and grandmother and her friends in Colorado, so she stayed. “I miss the East Coast and the South,” she said. “That is really where I would rather be.” She said it is beautiful in Colorado, though, and she lives right by the mountains, but it is very expensive to live there. “I miss the big oak trees and all the green. It’s beautiful here, but it is so dry that everything is brown.”
She said she was a spitfire as a young woman and that being in the military taught her discipline, accountability and leadership that was lacking in her life. “I needed it to straighten my butt up,” she laughed.