Lee Councilor was a 17-year-old working at Bob’s Big Boy in Mesa when the kitchen cleanup crew didn’t show up one night, leaving him with extra work.
He decided then that there had to be something better out there. So he visited the military recruiter the next day.
That’s how Councilor, who is now Queen Creek’s facilities operations manager, ended up serving on nuclear submarines in the United States Navy for 18 years, from 1977 to 1995. He retired as a chief petty officer.
Councilor served on four different submarines during his time with the Navy. On some submarines, the task was to listen to what was going on under the water and be prepared to destroy enemy vessels if war came; on others, it was to carry nuclear missiles, to be a weapon under the water with a location that was always a mystery.
“Our philosophy was, if I left with my missiles and I came back with them, I had a successful patrol,” Councilor said. “Because our job was a deterrent. We were a quiet platform where nobody knew where we were at.”
Typical patrols lasted 90 days at a time. On the submarines carrying nuclear missiles, the submarine would submerge and then no one but the ship’s captain and a few other key crew members knew where they were.
“The rest of us didn’t care. We just knew we were in the middle of the ocean. We were just cruising around at ‘five knots to nowhere,’ is what we used to call it,” Councilor said. “But we were always on alert, ready to launch our weapons at a moment’s notice.”
Crew members received eight 50-word family grams during each patrol. Occasionally, if the submarine stopped at a port, there was also an opportunity to get letters. Other than that, there was no contact with families while underwater.
“Boy, you waited for those 50-word family grams. It let you know there was life outside the boat,” Councilor said.
News came out of a printer in paragraphs at a time. Councilor recalls being glued to that machine and reading news of the Los Angeles earthquakes in bits and pieces.
Sports were also big, and broadcasts of Armed Forces Radio were especially popular during college bowl season, Councilor said.
Those close quarters and sense of service led to a sense of camaraderie Councilor hasn’t found in civilian life. You have to know who you can trust when you’re under the water and things like a fire or flood could spell disaster, Councilor said.
But more than that, Councilor knew all of his crewmates’ names and the names of their wives and kids. During breaks, all of the families would usually get together.
“When I was stationed in Hawaii, it was not uncommon once a month for a ship to have a picnic,” Councilor said. “Because you get along so well, I knew who had my back, I had their back. There was never a doubt. If something happened (on the submarine), I knew who I could trust.”
Councilor ultimately took advantage of an early retirement package the Navy offered. And while he enjoys his current job, he would love to serve on a submarine again.
“If they offered me a chance to go back on the boats, I’d be gone in a heartbeat,” Councilor said. “One thing you can never take out of a sailor is a love for the sea.”
Amy Sheridan didn’t join the regular Army in 1976 — she joined the Women’s Army Corps. It was a couple years before the WAC was folded into the regular Army, which Sheridan served in until 1999.
Because of that timing, Sheridan became one of the Army’s first female pilots. She prefers to focus on the people who helped and encouraged her, although she suffered plenty of grief for being a woman in a man’s domain.
“I was in a completely new world,” said Sheridan, who lives in Queen Creek and used to be a counselor at Queen Creek High School. “There were not men who had been used to working alongside women, especially in such a technical, mechanical field.”
One of her first assignments was in Georgia, where Sheridan served a fixed-wing crew chief, people who provide maintenance, inspections and other services for planes. She recalled working with some great men and women, but one funny incident highlighted how odd it was to have women in the mix.
She and another woman, Sue Jones, were out in the summer heat towing airplanes.
“We were very good, so they really couldn’t say anything there, especially when other guys were dinging wing clips and things like that,” Sheridan said. “They weren’t as smooth as the girls were on the tug.”
One plane came in and was supposed to keep its wheels on a line. Suddenly, the entire plane went off into the dirt.
There wasn’t any major damage, although the pilots wouldn’t initially talk to Sheridan and her friend when they went up to see what happened.
“Later on, there was a new rule made that we couldn’t just go out in our T-shirts. We had to wear covering over our T-shirts, even though it was so hot in the summer, because the pilots got distracted,” she said with a laugh. “That was a miserable hot summer. That was rough.”
But later experiences were far from lighthearted. Sheridan recalled flight school being a difficult time because of harassment she described as a “you have to suck it up” incident.
She’s only told one person about exactly what happened. However, since the perpetrator was so visible in what he was doing, she still got some support.
“When that was going on, there were at least people who were standing up for me,” Sheridan said.
It wasn’t enough to keep her down. Sheridan successfully completed flight school and went on to assignments in Germany, Fort Rucker in Alabama and South Korea.
Her last assignment was for NATO in Turkey, where she was a pilot for a four-star Turkish general.
And while she was there, she got to see a first for Turkey.
“They graduated their first woman pilot in the military,” Sheridan said. “It was really cool to be there.”
Sheridan has been out of the military for 10 years. She feels very comfortable around veterans, and has found she tends to instinctively drift to others who have served in the military.
“There’s something that binds us, that joins us all together,” she said. “And then there’s something that’s even another kind of special when I run into women veterans that have been through as much time and experience, especially the pioneers, as I have.”