By Rudy Arispe, ’98 BA
Had she not enjoyed an illustrious 30-year Air Force career, retired Brig. Gen. Sue Turner probably would have sung her heart out in opera houses around the country. At age 16, she stood on stage next to some of Europe’s leading tenors and sopranos as an extra with the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
One of her neighbors was the stage door manager of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and got Turner a job, leading to her “debut,” so to speak, in 1958 in “Aida.”
“It was a huge production and included Leonie Rysanek, Jussi Bjorling, Tito Gobbi and Giulietta Simionato,” Turner said. “I was one of the little priestesses in the temple. I had this (chalice) I had to carry to a shelf, and right before I went on stage they poured dry ice into it. I wasn’t allowed to sing, but I would hum along.
“My next opera was ‘Carmen’ with Jean Madeira as Carmen and Giuseppe di Stefano as Don Jose. I was exposed to all these people who were opera legends. I had a blast.”
Fate, however, had other plans for Turner’s future. In 1965, the then-22 year old joined the Air Force after a recruiter convinced her of the perks of travel, adventure and romance, she said. At the time, the young and bright Chicago native was working as a nurse in a local hospital.
When she entered the Air Force as a second lieutenant, Turner never imagined she one day would reach the rank of brigadier general, let alone at a time when only 2 percent of general officers were women.
“That was never my goal,” she said. “My goal was to have a good career and further my education. I learned a lot about what other people did, and how it fit together in the grand scheme of things. So over the years I got promoted to higher rank and bigger jobs. It was a humbling experience and opened a whole new basket of opportunities for me.”
Turner was chief nurse at Wilford Hall Medical Center at the time of her promotion to brigadier general in January 1992. Soon after, she was sent to Washington, D.C., where many exciting duties awaited her.
Among these was a position as chair of the Federal Nursing Chiefs Council in which she expressed the interests and concerns of about 100,000 nurses serving in the federal system to professional groups and Congress.
“I had to testify before Congress about issues related to federal nurses,” Turner said. “The prepared remarks were easy. Then the questions started, and it could get tough. But the senators were very respectful, and they helped us get our budgets through for our individual corps.”
The position also encompassed serving as the Air Force representative to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. It consisted of a committee of 30 prominent civilians from around the country who advised the Department of Defense on matters pertaining to women in the services, such as sexual harassment and jobs that were not open to women at that time.
One of the highlights of her career was turning dirt at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in the nation’s Capitol.
“People came from all over the country. There were a lot of Vietnam vets who were convinced that the reason they were still alive is because of the nursing care they received,” she said. “I remember having my hard hat and little shovel. Gen. (Colin) Powell and I were in the same line turning dirt.”
In 1995, Turner retired from the Air Force, but not before earning a number of awards, including the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit with one oak
leaf cluster, the Meritorious Service Medal with four oak leaf clusters, and National Defense Service Medal with service star, among others.
She also was able to complete her education prior to being named a general. She graduated from UIW, then Incarnate Word College, with a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 1973 and later completed a master’s degree in nursing administration from the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
As an alumna of UIW, she is one of only five nursing graduates to rise to the position of brigadier general. Three have been with the Army and two in the Air Force.
Since retiring, Turner has kept busy, serving on various state and federal commissions and nonprofit boards: the 2005 Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC), the American Battle Monuments Commission, and the Texas Veterans Commission. She also serves on the board of directors of the San Antonio Federal Credit Union and the San Antonio Area Foundation.
“With everything she does, she gives 110 percent, whether it’s attending opera performances, battling cancer or serving as a board member,” said Lady Ray Romano, vice president of grants and programs at the San Antonio Area Foundation. “What impresses me is the wealth of information and experience she brings and the humble spirit with which she delivers it.”
In February 2009, the 68-year-old Turner underwent a health crisis when a routine mammogram detected a cancerous mass.
“It was a real shock,” she said. “I had to go through chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. When they were doing preparatory work, they also discovered I had thyroid cancer. Now I’m pretty much back to 100 percent on energy levels.
“I’m thankful it was found early. It’s a really good reminder that we’re all here for a certain amount of time, and we don’t know how long that will be.”
Today, Turner still has a passion for opera. She travels often to New York, Chicago, New Mexico and other parts of the country whenever a particular opera strikes her fancy.
Having served three decades in the Air Force, one wonders if Turner ever misses it – to which she quickly replies, “No.” However, she encountered a small dilemma immediately after retiring.
“The hardest part of all was the next day when I got up and had to figure out what I was going to wear after wearing a blue uniform for 30 years,” she said with a chuckle.