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FARMINGTON — Among the memories Air Force veteran Emerson Lee carries with him from his military service are the cassette tapes he sent to his parents.

On those tapes, Lee recited letters home to Shiprock and waited to receive replies from his father, who recorded on the other side of the cassettes.

“It was the only way he could understand. He never had education,” Lee said, adding his parents did not own a telephone.

Lee, 67, shared that memory after receiving a set of medals for his service on Tuesday from U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M.

Lee, of Kirtland, received a Vietnam Service medal, a Republic of Vietnam Campaign medal, a National Defense Service medal and an Air Force Good Conduct medal during a presentation at the Bonnie Dallas Senior Center.

“I’m proud to be here,” Lee said, explaining he previously had received some of the medals but lost those during his travels, while others were never received.

After learning that requests for medals can be submitted, he contacted Luján’s office for assistance.

Lee is Táchii' nii (Red Running Into the Water People Clan), born for Kinyaa'áanii (Towering House Clan).

During the ceremony, he stood next to Luján and in front of flags held by four members of the Upper Fruitland Veterans Organization.

“I know he is a humble Navajo warrior who does not often talk about his service, but when Sgt. Lee sought our support, I told him that, with his permission, I would like to pin these medals in front of veterans, friends and family,” Luján said.

Sitting in the audience were Lee’s wife, Paulene; their children, Emerson Jr. and Cheryl; and grandchildren, Jayson and Emilee.

Luján said after his staff contacted the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Mo., about Lee, it took less than a week to receive a response, followed by the shipment of the awards.

“It is now my honor to thank you for your service, to give you a welcome home that each and every one of our Vietnam veterans deserves and to present you with the medals you earned,” Luján said.

The congressman then pinned the medals to Lee’s black jacket, making adjustments to ensure each one was fastened straight.

Throughout the presentation, family and friends snapped photographs and shot videos with their cell phones.

With his medals in place, Lee briefly spoke about his service, including his year in Vietnam.

“I wasn’t expecting something like this. …I was proud to serve my country,” he said.

Lee paused then reflected on friends he lost during the war and some who died after returning home.

“I’m here for them, too,” he said.

In an interview after the ceremony, Lee said he enlisted in the Air Force in August 1969 and was honorably discharged in August 1973 with the rank of sergeant.

He was a precision measuring equipment specialist in a maintenance squadron, where he trained to troubleshoot, repair and calibrate electronic test equipment.

He was stationed at Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado, Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon in Vietnam and Edwards Air Force Base in southern California.

Prior to his service, he earned an associate degree in electronics technology from New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, N.M.

After returning home, he worked at the Fairchild Semiconductor plant in Shiprock, then at Navajo Tribal Utility Authority in Fort Defiance, Ariz., before working as an electrician for BHP Billiton.

He retired in May after 35 years of employment at the Navajo Mine, where he maintained equipment such as draglines, trains and electrical loaders.

“I’m a farmer now,” Lee said, adding he spent the summer growing native corn, melons, squash and cucumbers on family land in Shiprock.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.

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