Mercury News: Sunnyvale Council Member Otto Lee Prepares For Iraq Deployment

By Jessie Mangaliman and Bay Area News Group

Except for a couple of red and green lanterns hanging forlornly on the porch, there are few signs of holiday cheer in the Lee household in Sunnyvale.

Otto and Sally Lee said they’re not sure they’ll be putting up a Christmas tree. They’ve been distracted, they said apologetically.

By Baghdad.

On Dec. 29, Sunnyvale Council Member Otto Lee, a U.S. Navy reservist, will begin a yearlong deployment in Iraq. He will leave behind a wife and two young daughters, his parents and in-laws, a wide circle of friends, political supporters and a seat on city government.

“We serve because this is what it is about,” said the 41-year-old attorney. “We serve when America is at war, and I’m honored to serve.”

As Lee pointed out, he’s not the first reservist to be deployed to the war in Iraq. More than 140,000 U.S. soldiers are there today. But Lee is perhaps the first Bay Area public official to be called to duty, a reminder, said his friend Pearl Cheng, “that the war is touching us all.”

Since he received his deployment orders three weeks ago, the Lees have had little time for anything else. He has met with clients at his San Jose law firm, which specializes in intellectual property. Last week, the Sunnyvale council had a lively debate on how and with whom to fill Lee’s seat while he is away.

And at home, Christmas was put on hold.

“We’ve just been trying to spend as much time as possible visiting with family and friends,” said Sally Lee, a certified public accountant.

On a recent early morning, Sally Lee’s parents were attending to the Lees’ two daughters — Aubrianna, 3, and Hillary, 1 — as the couple prepared for another whirlwind day of work, visits and sorting personal papers.

“I don’t think you could ever mentally prepare for something like this,” Otto Lee said, as he watched Aubrianna play in the carpeted living room.

Lee, a University of California-Berkeley graduate with degrees in chemical and nuclear engineering and a law degree from UC’s Hastings College of the Law, emigrated from Hong Kong with his family when he was 15. He has served on the Sunnyvale City Council for five years, as member and mayor. In November, he ran unsuccessfully for Santa Clara County supervisor.

Lee also is a supply officer in the U.S. Navy reserve, and in Iraq he’ll coordinate the logistics of moving supplies and troops. He was called to active duty for six months in 2003, when he was stationed in San Diego.

“It’s different this time,” Sally Lee said. “I didn’t have to worry about his safety.”

“I need to be positive for the sake of my family,” she said. “I don’t want them to see that I’m living in fear.”

At his last in-person council meeting Tuesday, the final item on the agenda was Lee’s impending departure, a discussion aptly named “When Otto Goes Off to War” by Council Member John Howe.

Otto, this is our last night to share the dais,” said Howe, clearing his throat. “I consider you a friend, and you’re going to be greatly missed.

Otto, you just be real careful.”

Lee said he expects to stay in touch with his family by e-mail, phone or webcam. While he’s gone, his wife said, she’ll connect with a network of families who have relatives in Iraq.

“We’re blessed with strong family support,” Sally Lee said. “We’re hopeful, but we would be lying if we said that no one is worrying.”