A profile in service: Paradise Valley veterans share tales of courage

Posted 11/10/19

The road taken to land in Paradise Valley is different for everyone --- some work hard to achieve the highest quality of life, while others have family ties in town.

For former Police Chief John …

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A profile in service: Paradise Valley veterans share tales of courage


The road taken to land in Paradise Valley is different for everyone --- some work hard to achieve the highest quality of life, while others have family ties in town.

For former Police Chief John Wintersteen and Town Building Official Bob Lee, they arrived in the Town of Paradise Valley by way of the Vietnam War.

Mr. Wintersteen spent nearly 30 years in the United States Marine Corps, raising to achieve a top-leadership position before retiring from the service to become the local police chief.

For Mr. Lee, he spent only a handful of years in the United States Army as a helicopter pilot, but added a couple of notches to his belt when he was lauded as the youngest officer to serve in Vietnam at that time. The former pilot has now been the fire inspector and code enforcer for Paradise Valley residents for several years.

Both veterans have interesting stories behind their day jobs. Read below to learn about the first duties Mr. Wintersteen and Mr. Lee undertook in their early years, before landing in the Town of Paradise Valley.

A helicopter pilot

Mr. Lee grew up in a military family, with his father being a commissioned officer who was also a pilot. When he was of age, the family legacy carried on.

“I volunteered for the draft by having my father literally take me by the ear and march me down to the recruiter’s office,” Mr. Lee explained. “I tested very well for flying helicopters.”

It was off to basic training in Louisiana, followed by flight school in Texas.

When Mr. Lee graduated from his training, he was a warrant officer --- meaning he was a highly specialized expert and trainer in his career field.

Following a couple of months with a test ward, Mr. Lee was deployed to Vietnam.

“Somehow I got assigned to the gunships from the first day,” he said. “I was told that I was the youngest officer ever to serve in Vietnam at that time. That was pretty early in the war, I don’t know if someone beat my record or not.”

He was 19.

There were two different types of days for Mr. Lee, he said, where some included missions while others included waiting around to get a call for their service.

Missions meant the pilots would fly off in the early morning hours to a destination and usually escort aircrafts that flew the troops. They would also have assignments to fly cover for soldiers when they were on the ground.

“Sometimes we would be there as an escort and fly cover, other times if they anticipated where they would be setting down, it would be ‘hot’ meaning there would be bad guys hanging out,” Mr. Lee said. “We would go in first and shoot the area up, and then they would come in behind us and hopefully the bad guys would be gone.”

After a year of working in Vietnam, Mr. Lee returned to the United States and taught others how to fly at Fort Walters. He then returned back to Vietnam for a second tour, where he was a personal pilot for George S. Patton III.

Mr. Lee said originally, the idea was pilots would only serve one year in Vietnam. But, as the war dragged on, and more pilots were needed, he was called back.

“Sometimes I would be flying over some beautiful, beautiful beaches,” Mr. Lee said of his time in Vietnam. “I’d think some day I’d like to come back here and hang out on the beach --- that kind of thing. Now, some of the people I flew with and some other people in the war have gone back and have hung out on the beaches and visited the places where they were going.”

Mr. Lee said the Vietnamese people are understanding and welcoming to the soldiers who return.

“Your attitudes change,” he said. “Where before it was a lot of self-defense, I was looking for somebody to do something to me so I could do something to them. Now, that part of the world is normal.”

Mr. Lee went on to get his degree in architecture, before ultimately going into the construction business and working his way up from a laborer to a foreman and a superintendent. He spent time working in Saudi Arabia and the Philippines before getting married and settling down.

He worked in Flagstaff, Prescott and Cave Creek before being hired in the Town of Paradise Valley 13 years ago.

A professional police officer

Mr. Wintersteen spent 29 years in the Marine Corps, and served in many areas during that time – including 20 months in Vietnam followed by being stationed in North Carolina, Virginia, Hawaii, Philadelphia and Washington D.C.

“The finest young Americans choose to become United States Marines,” Mr. Wintersteen said.

“I came in when there was a draft; I likely would have been drafted if I had waited another six months or year.”

Mr. Wintersteen started as a combat engineer in logistics, who is responsible for blowing up items, building things and providing intelligence.

“I loved doing all three of those things,” he said.

In north Vietnam, he was in charge of mine sweeps, which he described as “extremely interesting work,” that he loved.

“What we would call IEDs today, they were called mines and booby traps,” he said. “In south Vietnam, we had to analyze the reports and sometimes physically look at whatever it was, figure out what country it came from, surprise booby traps, all of those things --- it’s exciting work.”

At 22-years-old, Mr. Wintersteen was a commanding officer.

While a Marine tour was supposed to be 13-months long, Mr. Wintersteen decided to stay for an additional six months.

After his deployment, and being stationed around the United States in various role and capacities, Mr. Wintersteen spent 20 years in the military police.

In 1973, Mr. Wintersteen graduated from the FBI National Academy --- which is a premier qualification to be a police chief in the United States, he said.

The FBI National Academy is a professional course of study for U.S. and international law enforcement managers nominated by their agency heads because of demonstrated leadership qualities. The 10-week program provides coursework in intelligence theory, terrorism and terrorist mindsets, management science, law, behavioral science, law enforcement communication, and forensic science, according to the organization’s website.

While stationed in Hawaii, Mr. Wintersteen had nearly 200 police officers working for him.

“All the things cops do, we did,” he said. “It was a pretty nice sized police force.”

He was promoted to be in charge of all Marine security and law enforcement, including the embassies and consulates around the world.

“When I was in Washington D.C., my responsibilities were world-wide --- I had to fly places four to five times a month, I had a top secret phone in my home, I had to wear a key around my neck all the time, constantly,” Mr. Wintersteen said.

“My phone would ring and I’d have to race downstairs to answer the top secret phone. The people at the other end would see ‘operation headquarters’ on their screen, but it was just my house.”

Mr. Wintersteen was in charge of all combat dogs and handlers of the whole Marine Corps, in addition to traffic control, criminal investigations and normal patrol duties. He was also the anti-terrorism officer for the U.S. Marine Corps.

“It was a hard choice to leave the Marine Corp,” Mr. Wintersteen said. “There was three more years before a federal statute required I retired --- I would have had to assign myself to a base. I was 49 years old, and I said I’m going to retire and get a job as a civilian police chief.”

Following his highly demanding job in Washington D.C., Mr. Wintersteen knew he wanted a small-town gig.

“I wanted to be able to go from one end of my jurisdiction to the other in 15 minutes,” he said, noting he also didn’t want to live in cold weather.

He joined the Paradise Valley Police Department on June 22, 1995, and worked there for 14 years.

Now, Mr. Wintersteen has reinvented himself yet again, as a full-time community volunteer at the leadership level. He spends 50-60 hours a week on volunteer work for various youth programs, in addition to serving as the vice president of the Paradise Valley Public Safety Foundation.

“The dedication, the willingness to risk their lives, the willingness of married men and women to be away from their families for months or years at a time --- I tremendously respect those sacrifices Marines and others make,” Mr. Wintersteen said.