But today, Lee, 64, is relying on more than 30 years of experience as an international security consultant to help keep readers out of trouble overseas with his new book: Staying Safe Abroad -- Traveling, Working and Living in a Post-9/11 World.
The 327-page book, published by his own Sleeping Bear Risk Solutions press, is packed with hair-raising stories, timely statistics and common-sense tips that will rate as valuable cargo on your next foreign vacation. In fact, if theres any fault to the book, its that you may not want to venture much farther than your back porch after reading its cautionary tales, much less across the U.S. border.
But its not Lees intention to scare Americans away from traveling, because he himself loves to go abroad. In fact, hes spent much of his life in foreign lands and has visited 60-70 countries.
What he does stress, however, is common sense, caution, and a sense of preparedness to ensure your safety in foreign lands.
The point I make in the book is that traveling abroad is one of the best experiences Ive ever had and that most people will ever have, Lee says. But the world has changed dramatically since 9/11 -- crime is up, desperation is up, and the recession has had a ripple effect on foreign economies. All Im saying is to be cautious, be prudent, dont act like an American, and blend into the woodwork as best you can to enjoy your trip.
Lees own trip through life began as a 17-year-old Marine from Saginaw who went to Vietnam twice. He took part in the historic landing on the beach at Danang in 1965 and returned to the country for another tour of duty in 1966.
When I got out of the military, I was a sergeant, and at one juncture I got really interested in foreign affairs, he recalls. He enrolled in the American University in Washington, D.C., and majored in law enforcement, moving on to a degree in forensic science.
I ended up at the State Department and became a special agent, pretty much involved in protecting ambassadors and diplomats, he says.
UNDER THE GUN
As a regional security officer, Lee traveled the world for years on end.
I loved it -- it was interesting and very active work, he says of his work overseas. I picked up a number of languages along the way, studying Greek, Korean, Thai and Spanish.
Those languages dovetailed with tough assignments.
For instance, Lee was on the Mediterranean isle of Cyprus during the conflict between Greece and Turkey which split the island in half.
The U.S. ambassador was assassinated and it was a very dangerous place, he says. There were days when the Marines and I would dispense 200 to 300 cannisters of tear gas at the mobs outside the embassy.
Other hot spot postings included Panama, El Salvador, Korea, Guatemala, Colombia and the Dirty War of Argentina.
During the turbulent 80s, American officials were being assassinated and car bombs were becoming more popular, Lee says.
It was his job as a security expert to head off such disasters, and sometimes, getting roughed-up went along with the gig.
Wed get attacked at the demonstrations at the embassies and Ive been robbed at gunpoint, he notes. Sometimes youd get in a situation where youd know you were going to take your lumps and the only thing you could do was cover your head. One thing I tell people is that if someone pulls a gun, a knife or a machete on you, do not resist. Getting robbed is not the time to get angry -- you need to be complacent and compliant.
Along those lines, Lee has the look of a security consultant: he blends in, rather than trying to look like Rambo. Hes got a pleasant, laid-back demeanor with a touch of reserve, and to see him on the street, you might imagine that hes an office worker instead of a former special agent in charge of keeping violence under control.
So, was he ever afraid, back in the day?
Ive been doing this for so long that Ive been religious about following my own advice, he says with a smile. Ive worked in Colombia and Pakistan and the highest-risk countries. A lot of being safe is knowing the country and knowing what criminals are looking for.
And a lot of problems arise when Americans dont know much about the country theyre visiting or havent thought through what theyd do in a dangerous situation.
Lee retired from the Foreign Service in the late 80s and became a lecturer with the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, teaching more than 8,000 U.S. diplomats and their families how to stay safe overseas. He also became a private security consultant, based in Los Angeles.
On one memorable case, he was advising a French company which had a manufacturing plant in Medellin, Colombia during the height of that countrys drug cartel problems.
They asked me to do a security assessment for their top executive, who was driving around in an unarmored Peugot, he says. I strongly recommended an armored car, and it took months to convince him to get a fully-armored vehicle.
But a couple of months later, as the execs car pulled into the plant, a woman standing outside the gates pulled out a machine pistol and started spraying the car with bullets. His car raced into the plant and the next day he called and thanked me for pushing so hard for an armored car, Lee says.
Lee thought he was done with the State Department, but when Osama bin Ladens suicide hijackers crashed into the Twin Towers on 9/11/2001, he got a call from the government, asking him to set up a new program in Washington. I threw my laptop and printer in the back seat of my car and left home, he says. I figured Id be gone a year, but four-and-a-half years later, I was still there.
A medical event brought him home to Acme in April, 2006, and although Lee retired as a security consultant, he began a new life as an author.
I started this book shortly after I came back to Michigan, thinking Id bang it out in two or three months, but it took two years to complete, he says.
And no wonder, because Staying Safe Abroad is filled with facts on everything from protecting your laptop to the mindset of criminals abroad. There are special sections on anti-Americanism, women traveling abroad, kidnapping, scams, terrorists, and why youre generally on your own in a foreign country.
There are also stories of Americans who were beaten, raped and robbed because of their nationality, along with tales of other Western travelers who were victims of muggings, murder and vehicle accidents.
One such case was that of an American backpacker who got drunk at a bar in Honduras and was jumped by a gang of thugs who sliced his wrist nearly clean off. The local hospital refused to treat him unless he could come up with the cash on the spot. In another incident, a young American woman was raped on a mountain trail at 14,000 feet by attackers who said it was payback for a U.S. drug-eradification program.
Youll also find nuggets of information scattered through the book, such as the fact that 6,000 Americans die abroad each year; and that 21 nations have higher homicide rates than the U.S., including South Africa, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Mexico, Russia, Thailand and Poland.
The book is invaluable for showing how to keep a low profile overseas; how to avoid risky situations; and what to do if you get into a jam, ranging from losing your passport to being in an armed robbery. Even small tips, like carrying a rubber doorjamb in your luggage to prevent hotel-break-ins.
Youre not going to have a 9-11 number you can call in most countries where the police will respond quickly, Lee notes. Youre really on your own -- in fact, the cops may even rob you.
Lee self-published Stay Safe Abroad through his own company. Hes already published a prior version of the book for business travelers and diplomats which sold well, and he has plans for two more books in 2009.
He also enjoys hitting the lecture circuit and speaking on the topic of travel safety. Book signings have gone well, and some people buy two or three copies.
The appeal of the book is that it covers the whole gamete of travelers, from tourists to aid workers, business travelers and diplomats, Lee says.
Theres also a special section on cruise ships, which have seen a huge increase in crime, he adds. A lot of people in Northern Michigan take cruises, but you have to pick your boat carefully because there are countless accounts of people being raped, robbed and disappearing from cruise ships.
So, with all of the above taken into account, should you just stay home?
Lee isnt: he still takes two or three trips each year and has traveled abroad with his daughters Vicki and Jennifer.
So dont be afraid to travel -- just be prepared. The point of the book is educating travelers so they can make the right decisions.
Staying Safe Abroad is available at Horizon Books, Amazon.com, and through www.sbrisksolutions.com.