When Gen. George Lee and Dorene Butler decided to move from their beloved Omaha, Neb., and retire to sunny Southern California, they searched from San Diego to Santa Barbara until a local Laguna Beach news article caught their eye and consequently ended their pursuit. The burning issue of the week in 1998 was whether or not neon signs should be permitted in commercial establishments.
“We thought if the people here care this much about that kind of issue, then we are home,” said Lee Butler, who with his wife, will lead Laguna’s Patriot’s Day Parade on Saturday, March 3, as grand marshalls.
Before settling into their Irvine Cove home, the Butlers lived in 30 different locations and several countries in their 50 years of marriage as the now retired four-star general labored his way through the ranks to serve as a secret negotiator with the former Soviet Union, a strategic gulf war Pentagon planner and as commander of the Strategic Air Command’s nuclear bomber and missile forces.
As a true testament to the meager beginnings of the young couple, their first residence in Selma, Ala., was a mobile home in which while lying in their twin bed together they could reach out and touch the walls. The Butlers’ life drastically changed when Lee was chosen as one of six people, two from each branch of the military, to study at the University of Paris through a scholarship. After receiving a master’s degree in international affairs, Lee’s fluency in French allowed him to be a prime candidate to serve as in the Vietnam War.
“War was difficult, certainly for those in it, but like every war there is a sacrifice on the home front as well. I was away from my wife and young children, but that is part of the contract you sign. We have troops that have gone on as many as six tours in Iraq. The impact to the family is severe. Dorene literally had the principal responsibility for raising our two children. They give the medals to the wrong person, I’ll tell you,” said Mr. Butler.
Butler’s role in the war began on the front lines of combat and concluded as an aide to the commander of 7th Air Force on Tan Son Nhut Air Base in South Vietnam.
“It was a hard time for our country in general. Then the military was fairly unpopular,” recalled Mrs. Butler. “During the Vietnam War we had to get an unlisted phone number because people would call me in the middle of the night and say, ‘is your husband out there killing innocent women and children?’ They would stop us in the street. What is so wonderful about today is that people are so supportive of the military.”
While war shaped Butler’s career, its toll also influenced his post-retirement policymaking. After folding up the uniform, he established Second Chance Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to multi-lateral nuclear disarmament.
“During my time in Vietnam at a very young age, I got a very brutal insight as to what war was. The principle lesson I took away from that was to avoid war at all costs. It should be the last tool in the president’s kit bag of what to do with interests that are antithetical to U.S. costs,” said Butler, who from 1987 through 1991 answered the red phone on the desk of former President George H. Bush.
Lee’s foundation provides a forum to smooth cultural boundaries among influential ex-military officials from across the globe that endorse and advocate for nuclear disarmament. Its existence alienated some of Butler’s lifelong friends and colleagues.
Although the Butlers played a pivotal role in the military’s top ranks, Lee’s life work has been its own chronicle of second chances. The two are humbled by their role in the town’s salute to patriotism.
“I would say that today’s armed forces are just extraordinary by any measure, and more professional and much more capable in the sense of better trained and more equipped than in my day. A lot of these young people that you will see in the parade are wonderful, and they are the ones that should all be grand marshalls,” the former general said.
“Our children did not know what bigotry was until they went to school because they grew up on a base where we had all races, cultures and religions,” said Dorene about military life.
Her husband added, “It just wasn’t an issue for all of us because the military is a great leveler. You can look at somebody’s uniform, you know their rank, and you look at their chest and you know what medals they have and why.”
“When we did Second Chance and were trying to reduce nuclear dangers, we asked Pakistani and Indian generals and admirals and their wives to come to the United States and meet with us. I led a bus for the women to go sightseeing while they were here, and the head Indian and Pakistani wife sat down next to each other and just started talking like they knew each other,” said Dorene Butler.
“If a nuclear bomb hit Catalina Island, 26 miles off the coast, sitting in your Laguna Beach kitchen, your clothes would spontaneously combust,” Butler said.