Leading against all oddsHe defeated a childhood illness and became the first in his family to serve NS. Today, he is a Regular in the RSAF and Golden Bayonet recipient.
// Story by Benita Teo
// Photos by Chua Soon Lye
Growing up, 3rd Sergeant (3SG) Keefe Lee had always had a strong desire to serve the nation. The 24-year-old was a school basketballer and dragon boater, and he knew that he had the fitness to do well in military training.
As the first in his family to go to National Service (NS) – his father is hearing impaired and was exempted from NS – he was also excited for the new experience.
However, because he had suffered from Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML) as a child, he was given Physical Employment Status (PES) E which meant he could only serve in combat service support and service vocations. AML is a form of blood cancer.
"When I was assigned PES E, I was disheartened. I had been curious and passionate about NS and really looked forward to experiencing what my father could not. But I accepted it and continued with my BMT (Basic Military Training) at Basic Military Training Centre School V," he said.
Scoring his first win
It was during his initial BMT that 3SG Lee learnt the importance of a strong military force, and wanted to contribute more.
"The National Education lessons we attended gave me a better understanding of NS – regardless of whether we are combat fit or not, we can play our part to protect the nation.
"I was even more motivated to perform to the best of my abilities. Knowing that I had made a full recovery (from AML), I decided to try and get my PES status changed (to be certified combat fit)."
After serving his NS for about nine months as a security trooper, his dream finally came true: Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) doctors and external experts certified him combat fit and changed his PES from E to B1.
Starting from zero
He returned to BMT, this time at Pulau Tekong.
But starting from zero was not easy. He recalled his second BMT: "I had to learn new things like arms drills and marching drills, and go for outfield exercises. I took a while to adapt to the physical training. To catch up on the lessons, I would practice with my buddies during my free time."
During his second BMT, he attended a recruitment talk by the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF). He decided to take the leap, and signed on as an Air Defence Systems Specialist.
From being the first to serve NS to becoming the family's first Regular airman, 3SG Lee now has another feather to add to his cap: he was awarded the Golden Bayonet at the Specialist Cadet Graduation Parade on 19 May.
He is grateful that his efforts have been recognised by his commanders. "There are many others who could have been selected to win, and I'm humbled that my instructors saw my potential. It's an inspiration for me to continue doing what I've been doing," he said.
At the Specialist Cadet School, he was also able to put his diploma in electrical engineering to good use. His coursemates would often approach him to help explain the technical aspects of their training.
"It can be a struggle for those who do not have a background in engineering. It's also good for me because I have to understand it well first before I can teach them," he explained.
A role model for future national servicemen
When asked if he has met naysayers who questioned his longer-than-usual journey, he says that he is fortunate to be surrounded by people who have been giving him their full support.
His parents have also been nothing but proud of their son: "When I said that I wanted to review my PES status, they told me to go for it (and) they were very happy when I successfully changed my PES status."
He has also become a role model to his 10-year-old brother, who loves hearing about his experiences in camp.
"I've been sharing my SAF journey with my family, and my brother is very inspired when he hears my stories. He can't wait for his turn to do NS, and he wants to do even better than me!
"I feel a sense of achievement knowing I've inspired him. I've helped the nation gain one more national defender!"