Buford Lee proved the old saying: It’s not what you know but who you know.
The now-retired Alabama Power lineman and safety specialist was drafted by the Army in 1962 at age 22 in the runup to the Vietnam War, and was deployed to Bangkok, Thailand. Although he was assigned to a unit setting up communications antennas on remote mountaintops, Lee found himself mostly in a cozy battalion headquarters.
“They needed somebody to do whatever the officers needed,” the 76-year-old Lee recalls from his home along the Coosa River near Gadsden. “When I was drafted, I said to myself, ‘I might as well make the best of it.’ So I took care of the right people the way they needed to be treated.”
One of Lee’s newfound “friends” was a sergeant major, the highest rank of enlisted men. “It doesn’t hurt to make friends like that,” said Lee, who later became an aide to the battalion commander.
Not only did Lee get to spend most of his two-year tour abroad in the confines of battalion headquarters, he got a promotion.
“I went from a private E1 to a sergeant E5 in 16 months and became a platoon leader.”
But it wasn’t all “who” he knew. Prior to his battalion job, Lee and others with a utility background were cherry-picked to staff the 125th Signal Corp, attached to the Army’s 25th Infantry, stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. The signal corps deployed antennas on mountain peaks and tested equipment with patch-panel communications trucks, similar to the production trucks used nowadays by ESPN at college football games.
In the early stages of the war, Lee knew what was unfolding by listening to the radio and reading newspapers.
“I knew what was going on, but I never had to deal with it (combat). We got out of there before it got hot.”
Lee keeps in touch with his signal corps brothers.
“We had a reunion a few years ago. There’s one from Spokane (Wash.), one from Houston and one from Linton, Ind.”
He returned to Alabama and fulfilled the requirement of two years inactive duty and two years standby. At the same time, he returned to Alabama Power and spent the last 25 years of his 45-year career as a safety specialist.
Lee was part of the team that started the energized gloving program in 1981, allowing linemen to work on 15-kilovolt energized lines. Lee’s role was to help write the rules and the training program.
“We worked out of the training center in Alabaster, and once we established the program, we went around the state and gave line crews a refresher course every year,” he said.
Lee retired in April 2005.