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Lee Perry Sparks Quality of Life Initiatives

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 21, 1996 – He has the job, but like most military wives, she shares the duty.

For Lee Perry, being the wife of the 19th secretary of defense means she, too, has to be all she can be.

Since her husband, William J. Perry, took the reins at the Pentagon nearly three years ago, Lee has traveled to more than 40 countries. Here in Washington, she's hosted countless dinners and receptions for visiting foreign dignitaries from Albania to Uzbekistan.

She's met presidents and prime ministers, American and foreign ambassadors, defense ministers and military chiefs. She's stayed in an Albanian king's palace, sampled such exotic Chinese delicacies as rendered Manchurian toad fat, ridden on camels and elephants, and flown in a variety of military aircraft.

"It's certainly been an education," Lee said during a recent interview. "I've had to learn to be a diplomat."

Lee married Perry, her high school sweetheart, nearly 50 years ago. Both are natives of Butler, Pa. When the couple's fifth child entered kindergarten, Lee went back to school, earning a bachelor's degree in public administration in 1965, and a master's. in business in 1970, both from San Jose (Calif.) State University. Her education took a decidedly different turn when her husband became head of the armed forces and she became the Defense Department's first lady.

Along with her foreign travels, Lee has toured American military posts around the world. While commanders brief her husband on base operations, Lee has a separate itinerary. As the secretary deals with technology, tactics and training, she gets a glimpse of the other side of military life -- housing areas, day care centers, DoD schools and family support facilities. He gets updates on readiness. She listens to family members' concerns about pay, medical care and housing.

Shortly before the Army's lst Armored Division deployed from Germany to Bosnia, for example, the Perrys visited the combat-ready unit. The secretary watched training at Grafenwoehr and Hohenfels while Lee met with family members.

"I was very impressed with the support network and facilities the division set up for family members while their spouses were away," she said. "The wives had set up a telephone tree to help keep everyone up to date on any news."

Lee serves as an extra pair of eyes and ears for the defense secretary. His view of service members' quality of life is influenced by her experiences in military communities. Lee humbly claims no credit for her informal role in sparking quality of life initiatives. She'll only say she may have served as a catalyst for change in some cases.

"I don't officially report to anyone," she said, "but I do let people in the Pentagon know what I've seen." Informal written reports on her trips are forwarded to appropriate officials within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, she said.

Only once has she requested a meeting with a DoD leader, Dr. Stephen Joseph, assistant defense secretary for health affairs, following an overseas trip. They discussed family dental care and family members seeking reimbursement for health care provided by private facilities overseas, she said, adding, "There have been improvements in these areas."

Although she has no official role, Lee said her visits let people know the secretary and other Pentagon leaders are concerned about quality of life issues. "It may be called 'showing the flag,' but by meeting with family members, seeing where they live and work and listening to their concerns, it shows we care," she said.

In her view, the greatest challenge facing military families is living on the pay service members receive, especially those at the lowest grades. Her suggested improvements include higher pay and better housing. She said she's toured aging family housing areas in serious need of maintenance. As an advisory board member of the Marsh panel on quality of life, Lee said, she fully supports the panel's recommendations for new ways of providing housing.

Since the couple arrived at the Pentagon, Lee said her greatest challenge is simply getting some private time with her husband. Like many of the troops serving in operations around the world, the secretary's "personnel tempo" is high. He spends about one-third of his time on the road or more exactly, in the air. He's traveled to more than 60 countries and has made many trips to NATO headquarters in Belgium and several trips to meet with officials in Moscow.

While Lee regularly accompanies her husband during his travels, she does not go on every trip. When he's in Washington, the couple's schedule is packed with official functions nearly every evening and weekend.

As hostess, diplomat, quality of life reporter, wife and mother, Lee said her tour of duty has been a challenge. Being gracious seems to come naturally to Lee, but, she said, it's not easy to be "up" all the time. Jet lag and early-morning to late-evening schedules each day can become tiring. But, she said, she's thoroughly enjoyed meeting foreign officials, service members and family members around the world.

"These three years have been a unique life experience," she said. "I'm grateful for the opportunity I've had to observe and to participate in events of national and international significance. I hope the result is personal growth, some humility and improved citizenship."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDefense Secretary William Perry and his wife, Lee, prepare to board a U.S. Air Force VC-137 at the conclusion of a trip to Kiev, Ukraine. R.D. Ward  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDefense Secretary William Perry and his wife, Lee, go through the mess hall serving line at Camp Able Sentry in Macedonia. Helene C. Stikkel  
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