The canals that flow from the Helmand River, which snakes out of the mountains to the north through high plateaus and sandy deserts, is key to survival for the people of southern Afghanistan. But decades of war and neglect took their toll.
In 2010, John Lehman was asked what only a Marine can be asked to do: Fix it.
So he put his career as an attorney in the private sector on hold in order to return to active duty 8,000 miles away from home.
Eight years later, Lehman recalled, “Helmand Province was probably the worst place on the planet at that moment. So they sent in the Marines.”
With combat operations in full-swing, Lehman’s team was tasked with restoring the half-century old, 500-mile canal system. He co-authored infrastructure plans, conducting extensive ground and air reconnaissance while working with British military units on construction.
But to do so meant going deep into an unstable region to gain the support and confidence of the locals while being vulnerable to attacks by the Taliban.
“The canal system is critical for fresh water and irrigation — for life,” Lehman said. “But rehabilitating it put us in harm’s way six of seven days a week. We were always ‘outside the wire’ and never far from Taliban fighters.”
U.S. military leaders agreed, awarding him the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service against the enemy, citing “Major Lehman’s distinctive contributions, unrelenting perseverance, and steadfast devotion to duty.”
He’s now Lt. Col. Lehman. He’s a citizen-soldier in his hometown of Birmingham, where he works at Regions Bank as Assistant General Counsel, assigned to support the Problem Asset Management department, which works to resolve underperforming/nonperforming loans or credits.
Lehman has just returned from his third combat deployment since he joined the Marine Corps Reserves after leaving active duty in 2006 — this time, an eight-month tour with Coalition Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, where he conducted operations in northern Iraq and the Iraqi Kurdistan region.
“In the Marines, we call placing burdens upon others ‘putting rocks in the [back]pack.’ But asking my Regions family to cover my workload during my absence was more like putting boulders on their shoulders,” he said.
“When a reservist is deployed, there are many things that weigh heavily on your mind … not the least of which are the additional burdens placed on your work colleagues.”
In a recent gathering of members of Regions’ legal department in Birmingham, Lehman shared stories of his combat experience with his colleagues but focused a great deal of his comments on the overwhelming support from Regions’ leadership and associates during the deployment.
“The moment I told General Counsel Boots Gale, Deputy General Counsel Jeff Lee and Chief Counsel Eric Helmers about my pending deployment to Iraq, they all asked the same thing: ‘John, what can we do to help?’ That support never wavered. I never once heard a grunt, groan or gripe from anyone at Regions.”
Instead, personnel throughout the bank frequently sent encouraging emails and often sent care packages, which Lehman shared with his fellow Marines who “really needed them more than I did.”
That support emanated from the very top of Regions. Before Lehman took a leave of absence, former CEO Grayson Hall paid a visit to Lehman and told him “I’m proud to have you on staff. Go do a great job for your country.” Later, both Hall and current CEO John Turner checked in with the deployed Lehman via email to wish him well.
Lehman says Regions’ support of “just a cog in the wheel” really supported the Marines and Coalition force members with whom he served in Iraq.
“When you know that your civilian employer fully supports your military service, you can, without a second thought, devote yourself fully to the military mission. I never once worried about the work on my desk while I was gone.”
As a reserve officer with 4th Civil Affairs Group, Lt. Col. Lehman has also participated in humanitarian relief and bilateral training exercises in the Caribbean and in Central and South America. He has done so with the support of his Regions coworkers.
An Alabama native, Lehman graduated summa cum laude from Auburn University with a degree in finance, and earned his law degree from Samford University. The military was always in his blood. His father, still going strong at 94, fought in the Pacific Theater during World War II. His paternal grandfather served during World War I.
While he has been decorated many times in his 19 years of service, Lehman says he’s “ever-humbled by the privilege to lead Marines and by the responsibility to protect our nation.”
Once a Marine, always a Marine. When duty calls, Lehman answers.
He knows Regions has his back.