Whether it is fixing aircraft for the Air Force or coordinating needs for the Hastings Veterans Home, Sue Register is on it
By Tim Engstrom
HASTINGS — Who in The American Legion in Minnesota doesn’t know Sue?
Very few, that’s who.
Sue Register, 65, is the volunteer coordinator for the Hastings Veterans Home, and she is the chaplain for Apple Valley Post 1776. She has been pictured in The Minnesota Legionnaire many times when members of Legion Posts bring donations for the Hastings Veterans Home or spend volunteer time there.
Got something to donate? Or time to spare? You go to Sue.
Right away, you can tell she was in the military. But not a lot of people know about her military years.
Register committed to the Air Force through the Delayed Entry Program while in high school in Fremont, Nebraska, where she grew up. She joined in 1973.
After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, where all airmen go for basic (that is, up until COVID-19; so half of recruits go to Keesler AFB now), she went to Keesler in Biloxi to learn her specialty in avionics, the electronic systems on aircraft. She learned to fix bombing and navigation systems.
This was the ’70s, and she found the military presence in Biloxi was not welcomed. She recalled seeing a bumper sticker that read: “Clean up, Biloxi. Kill an airman.”
Register got involved in a drill-and-ceremony contest for the base and did well before leaving for her permanent duty station at McConnell AFB in Wichita, where she repaired KC-135 Stratotankers.
She became the first woman to earn Maintenance Man of the Month. Then she was named Airman of the Quarter for the wing and the base. In 1975, she was Airman of the Year for the wing, base and the 8th Air Force, ending up as runner-up for Strategic Air Command.
She even got to work on Air Force One. Well, it was one of the backup Air Force One planes. The actual designation is for whichever one the president is aboard.
In 1976, Register was sent to California for further training before being sent across the Pacific Ocean to Osan Air Base in Korea. She worked on F-4 Phantoms and F-105 Thunderchiefs.
She was damned good at her job, among the very best, and she loved her line of work, too. But she got passed over for promotion because of her gender. A man got the promotion instead; higher-ups thought he needed the money because he was married.
She also found the U.S. military in Korea didn’t treat the Koreans with much respect. It rubbed her the wrong way.
“Korea was a beautiful country, and the people are wonderful,” she said.
Register was in Korea for the American Bicentennial on July 4, 1976. She and other members of the military had to paint everything red, white and blue. Then on the July 5 they began to paint it all back.
“There’s your tax dollars at work,” she said with a chuckle.
The time in Korea was for a year, and the airmen pretty much are stuck on base for that year. She worked an evening shift and would make a two-mile walk home every night after working on the aircraft.
Register did get off the base thanks to her love of sports. She was on the women’s volleyball team for the base and for all of the military in Korea. The base team got to travel to other bases, and the Korea team went all the way to the always-hot Philippines.
That was the same year that a tree just about ended the Korean ceasefire. Register worried she might not get to go home so soon.
An 80-foot Normandy poplar tree blocked the line of sight between the Bridge of No Return checkpoint and an observation post at the Joint Security Area. That’s the part of the demilitarized zone near where soldiers are face-to-face and buildings are used for negotiations. The poplar had become a problem over the years. North Korean soldiers once held U.S. troops at gunpoint, and other Americans had to go get them to bring them back safely.
On Aug. 18, 1976, two captains (one American, one South Korean), an American lieutenant and 11 enlisted United Nations soldiers, with five South Korean civilians, went out to trim the tree. A North Korean lieutenant, nicknamed Lt. Bulldog, was upset when the American captain continued to trim the tree despite his objections. Lt. Bulldog order the guards to attack, and they bludgeoned the American captain and lieutenant to death before they could defend themselves. The U.N. cadre dispersed the North Koreans.
The United Nations launched Operation Paul Bunyan on Aug. 21, when a convoy of 23 American and South Korean vehicles hauling engineers and a security detail unexpectedly drove into the JSA. They were equipped with chainsaws and pistols. The South Koreans also sent a special taekwondo force, and the U.S. had Cobra helicopters overhead. Meanwhile, the Air Force dominated the skies, and the USS Midway moved closer offshore. All along the DMZ, U.S. and South Korea prepared for war.
North Korean troops arrived in buses and, from two machine gun positions, watched the Americans fell the poplar, purposely leaving a 6-foot stump. It was cut down in 1987 and a stone monument to the two slain officers was erected. It is believed Lt. Bulldog was killed in a 1984 firefight at the JSA.
It was a frightening moment in Cold War history, but normalcy returned. Register got to return to the United States. She earned the Air Force Commendation Medal while in Korea.
The Air Force sent Register to George AFB in Victorville, California, out in the Mojave Desert.
The base closed in 1992 at the end of the Cold War. It now is a business and freight airport and an aircraft boneyard. The base’s water supply was contaminated by jet fuel, benzene, pesticides and other toxic chemicals.
“But we were drinking that all the time,” Register said.
There, she enjoyed working on the F-4s and F-105s again. And, again, she got the evening shift. She was used to being part of a team that strove for excellence, but, at George, the brass didn’t like that she was so good at making repairs. She said they told her not to perform so well so that they could keep their staffing budgets.
“I told them the goal for me was to keep our pilots alive,” she said.
Register became part of the Active Reserve. She was based out of Hill AFB in Utah, and the Air Force would fly her to Seattle monthly to work on C-130s. She found that she was competing with civilian technicians who didn’t want military members fixing the planes so that civilians could get the jobs.
She got out of the Air Force in 1979 and went to school at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. She went on a church mission to Montana and Wyoming, too. She double-majored in agronomy and horticulture, and then got her master’s degree in horticulture and plant physiology at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
She was aiming to be a teacher, but there were no jobs in vocational agriculture instruction at the time. She sold ag chemicals in Utah and Idaho instead.
“You have to feed yourself so I went out and did that,” Register said.
She got good at it and eventually became the general sales manager. She had a stint in Texas, then back in Utah, and she got married for a short time. She gave birth to a boy, John.
She and John moved to Minnesota in 1992 because her parents were living in Austin. Her father was a hog buyer for Hormel and had moved from that corporation’s Fremont facility to the Austin plant.
Register started her own business in Austin and sought to raise John without day care. They lived across the street from Register’s folks. The business was named SDS — Sue Dad Son.
“We did anything legal and moral,” she said.
Lawn mowing, landscaping, nighttime cleaning and maintenance for Austin businesses. The son of SDS grew to become the Minnesota American Legion Scout of the Year in 2008 and was the national runner-up. At Austin High School, he earned All-Conference honors in tennis. Today, John works for US Bank in Salt Lake City, and he and his wife are expecting their second daughter.
Register did various jobs over the years, such as working at Home Depot. She also went on an 18-month mission trip with the Church of Latter-day Saints to Nauvoo, Illinois.
Shortly after, she got the job at the Hastings Veterans Home. It was 2015, and a friend in the VFW Military Order of the Cootie suggested she apply.
“I didn’t have any of the qualifications they were looking for,” Register said. “This is literally the best job for me. I am helping veterans by working with veterans. It’s been a good run.”
In the Cooties, she is junior vice commander for the state. She belongs to the Hastings VFW. She is active in the Zumbrota Amvets as Department of Minnesota first vice commander. And in addition to being in the Apple Valley American Legion, she is a member of the Pine Island Legion Auxiliary and the Zumbrota VFW Auxiliary. She resides in Hastings.
You could say she is very involved in the veterans community, and no one would dispute the observation.
Register has high praise for the American Legion Auxiliary members and Secretary Sandie Deutsch for their work during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the Hastings Veterans Home, all veterans and staff are wearing masks.
“The Auxiliary really stepped up. We needed masks, and we needed them now.”
She said The American Legion did a good job, too, getting a delivery network together and coordinating mask donations from My Pillow. Register has been meeting Legionnaire Randy Olson of the COVID-19 Committee at Fleet Farm in Owatonna to pick up donations for the Hastings Veterans Home.
“It really set a good precedence of stepping up when there are no big dollars available,” Register said.
Register said the Disabled American Veterans is doing some transportation, too. She said the VFW out of Austin has been outstanding in its support for the vets home. And she had kind words for Darlene Wondra of Montgomery, The American Legion 3rd District representative who operates a little store at the home.
“She does sewing and mending — any clothes, blankets and quilts,” Register said.
Hastings Veterans Home Administrator Mike Anderson said Register is dedicated to the residents of the home.
“She works very hard to ensure that the residents get maximum benefit from the volunteers and the donations that are graciously given to the home,” he said.
A special MDVA newsletter that published weekly during the COVID-19 shutdown to mid-June featured staff members who could nominate other staff members. In the May 27 issue, one of them was Sue Register.
The kind words stated: “Sue always jumps in and finds everything everyone asks for! She recently helped veterans with their taxes and showed staff how to navigate the EIOR system (a state government inter-office network for purchase requests). She constantly puts the veterans and staff first and is willing to go the extra mile any time of the day or week!”