By Darren Simon
Valley Women Writer
1:36 PM PDT, June 13, 2011
Michelle Dee has been something of a gypsy both in where she resides and in her career, but in the Imperial Valley — and more specifically at Naval Air Facility El Centro — she has found a more permanent connection.
In a word, after years of finding herself on the move, she is home.
Dee is the public affairs officer for NAF El Centro, a daunting task, as she is a one-person public outreach operation on a base that employs more than 600 people, both military and civilian, a base where the population in any given week can swell as military training programs bring detachments from around the country, and the world for that matter, and a base which annually hosts the largest one-day communitywide event in the Valley.
Her role is to tell the story of NAF El Centro, from its mission within the Navy to its impact in the Imperial Valley, to the community. It is a challenge she takes seriously, and one she looks forward to facing each day.
“I’m a person who really likes a challenge, and I have finally found a job that fits my personality,” says Dee, interviewed from her office in the base’s administration building. During the interview, her office door remains open, and there are interruptions as military personnel stop in to ask her questions about an event or to comment on next year’s air show.
Dee, who earlier in her life served in the Army, is a civilian staff member who has been the base’s public information officer since 2006. It is a role the 41-year-old wife and mother of two sons, Conor, 7, and Cian, 4, says she truly believes in and looks forward to continuing to do into the future.
She is quick to point out just why she believes so much in the Navy base and her role on behalf of the base.
“The mission that we do at NAF El Centro is so important,” she says, adding: “We are sure there are people who are alive today in Iraq and Afghanistan because of the training they’ve gotten here.”
Dee is also quick to point out that her path to reach this point in her life has been somewhat unusual.
In fact, the concept that she has been a gypsy is her own characterization of a life that has involved a great deal of travel starting from her youngest years as the daughter of a father whose career led him to distant shores.
Dee was born in Venezuela, where her father’s career in international finance, had led the family.
Spanish, she says, became her first language.
Her father’s career also led the family to Hong Kong before they moved back to their native Scottsdale, Ariz., when Dee turned 5.
Dee spent the rest of her youth in Arizona until graduating high school at which time she enlisted in the U.S. Army. She served four years and in that time, because of an aptitude she showed in language development, she was sent to a linguist-training program where she was immersed in learning Farsi, the primary language of Iran. Her language skills were then put to use in military intelligence as an intercept operator.
After the military, Dee went on to attend college, earning a bachelor’s degree in business from Arizona State University in 1997. After earning her degree she first worked for Boeing as a supply chain manager attached to the Apache Long Bow military helicopter project.
But her career would soon take a different path.
Her husband Mike, whom she married in 1995, works for U.S. Gypsum and his career led them to a community in northern Nevada where Dee became a teacher in a small school district.
Then, in 2005, life brought them to the Valley.
Mike Dee was named the operations manager at the U.S. Gypsum plant in the Imperial Valley, and Dee found work at NAF El Centro putting her business degree to work in marketing for the base’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation program.
In 2006, as the base changed its public affairs officer position from military to civilian, Dee was named to the position.
Dee’s husband says he is very proud of what his wife has accomplished.
His career has led them to move to different locations, and he says in every case his wife has been able to adapt and succeed and help the communities in which they have resided.
“El Centro has been no different. She’s dug herself into the community and done very, very well,” says Mike Dee, who met Dee when they were both in the Army and stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
Mike adds of his wife: “She really spends a lot of time, effort and energy in helping the base succeed and in advancing what they are trying to do out there.”
For base Commanding Officer, Capt. Russ Thompson, Dee’s role as public affairs officer is critical.
“Her job is to ensure all the good work we do here is communicated to the public and to those who work here on base,” Thompson says.
“She also is a very important adviser to me on how policies will be received by the public,” Thompson further says, adding: “I not only rely on her to communicate policies, but also in formulating policy.”
Dee’s role at the base is multi-faceted.
One critical role is in steering the committee in planning the annual Blue Angels’ Air Show, which this year saw the largest crowd ever with an attendance of 50,000 visitors.
Planning the air show is a year-round effort that begins immediately after the previous air show ends. Planning never ends, but it is a task, Dee says, she and others who give their time to it care a great deal about.
“It is our way of saying thank you to the community,” she says.
She also finds herself working a great deal with the community, whether it is participating in a helicopter tour for Imperial County planning commissioners, as she has had in the days prior to this interview or in dealing with one very critical issue for the Navy base — encroachment.
Since 1942, the Navy base has been a part of the Imperial Valley and over the years the base has survived rounds of federal base closures due to the unique combat training for pilots available in the Valley. One reason the area is so unique and therefore critical both to the U.S. and British military forces is because the topography and desert environment are similar to what they find both in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Because of that uniqueness, Dee says, the United Kingdom as of last year has consolidated all of its helicopter command desert-training programs to NAF El Centro and the Imperial Valley.
For the base, which provides 115 million dollars annually to the local economy, it is critical to ensure that as growth occurs in the Imperial Valley, it does not impact the base’s service to the military as a combat training facility.
“We at the Navy base are a part of the Imperial Valley and we support the Valley growing and expanding,” Dee says. “What’s important to us is that it is compatible development and doesn’t hinder our ability to do our mission.”
The issue of encroachment has led Dee, along with base administration, to work closely with county officials, business leaders and developers in the community, and Dee says what is meaningful to her is that the community has been so supportive of the base and its role both to the Navy and to the Valley.
She and Capt. Thompson gave the example of one renewable energy developer with a planned windmill project in Ocotillo. The height and location of some of the windmills in the project would have impacted low-level flight training. After meetings, the developer agreed to alter the project so as not to impact the base’s needs.
That kind of compromise is critical, Dee says, adding that the base is successful at what it does due in large part to the positive relationship that has been fostered through the years between the base and the community.
The relationship between the base and the community is important to Dee for another reason.
“I have always been made to feel at home here in the Imperial Valley,” she says. “I have always been accepted and welcomed.”
She adds: “I love El Centro. I love the people here. There is that small-town atmosphere and I have always felt like I fit in. It just feels like home.”
With that in mind, Dee says she is looking forward to continuing to call the Valley home and to continue to share with the public the mission of the Navy base.
“I think it is an important mission to share with the world,” she says.
Copyright © 2013, Imperial Valley Press