Jimmie Austin, 71, of Dixon, was an Army specialist first class during the Vietnam War. Austin, who was born and raised in Franklin Grove, served from November 1966 to November 1968.
Austin was there during the Tet Offensive, which often claimed the lives of more than 500 Americans in a single week during 1968.
He returned from service with 14 medals, memories that still haunt him, and a love of country that remained stronger than his mistrust of government.
Austin shared some of his war experiences and how they have affected his life.
Q. What were your duties with the 652nd Transportation Detachment?
A. We were attached to an aviation company, and we picked up aircraft and hauled artillery to different camps and bases – we were one big happy family.
We also moved civilians to safety, but our main job was to keep the bases supplied every day. We’d have two pilots, a crane operator, and I was in the “jump seat” – the guy who jumped out of the aircraft to be the perimeter guard.
Q. You won 14 awards in Vietnam. Is there one of which you are most proud?
A. Well, I’m proud of all of them, because I think we did a heck of a job. We set a record for most tonnage moved in a 24-hour period during the Tet Offensive, and we got a presidential citation for that. The one I might be most proud of, though, is my Vietnam Ribbon. It has four stars – one for each major campaign I served in.
Q. Are you from a military family? Did any of your children follow in your footsteps?
A. I had an uncle who was in the Navy and some extended family in Vietnam, but no one in my immediate family. I have two sons and two daughters, and they didn’t go into the military. I pretty much talked against it because it’s too dangerous anymore. You can be deployed so many times and you have to fight by their rules.
Q. What was your most terrifying experience while you were there?
A. I was in downtown Vung Tau near the Mekong Delta and there was a really intense rocket attack. It was dark out – no streetlights, just dim candles from the huts along the road. I was running down the street, but had no idea where I was. I had nightmares about it until about a year ago. I saw a psychiatrist and took medication, but nothing seemed to work.
Q. You’ve talked about how difficult survivor guilt can be when you get home. How has that impacted your life?
A. One of my childhood friends from Franklin Grove was killed on 7/22/1970. His name was Johnny Babich and he was a hero. He was a radio operator and he had dropped the radio during an ambush. He went back to get it because it was their only chance of getting out alive. When he got back with the radio, he was killed.
Johnny was a super nice kid, and I came out of there without a scratch. I’ve lived with that guilt complex all of my life and it’s bothered me a lot. I’ve never been diagnosed with PTSD, but I drank a lot of whiskey for about 18 years. I regret that I don’t remember much about my kids growing up.
Luckily, one day I just quit drinking and smoking. I might have a couple of beers with my buddies once in a while, but the days of drowning my sorrows are over.
Q. What was it like coming home from such an unpopular and divisive war?
A. When we came back, we couldn’t even join the VFW. They said we lost the war and we became outcasts. It’s not like that there anymore, but it was really tough then. I remember, years later, going to Washington, D.C., with VietNow and we hooked up with some Gulf War veterans.
Gen. [Robert] McFarlane was there and it felt so good when he told us that we didn’t lose the war, the government did.
Q. How did the reception you received affect how Vietnam veterans dealt with their experiences?
A. Talking about the war was the best therapy in the world, but most people were afraid to tell their war stories because a lot of people didn’t want to hear them. Most vets didn’t say anything, and after a while, the war started to feel like nothing more than a horrible dream that wouldn’t go away.
VietNow had been getting together unofficially in a bar, but it didn’t become a local chapter until 1986.
Q. What was the most important lesson you learned during the war?
A. Never trust the government. I love my country, though, and at the end of the day, that was more important.
Q. How do you feel about the nation’s flag controversy?
A. I’m a die-hard Bears fan, but I haven’t watched a pro football game since this started. I don’t believe they are kneeling for the right reasons, but then I’m the same guy who hasn’t watched a baseball game since the 1994 strike.
Q. You recently returned from an Honor Flight trip to Washington. What was that like?
A. It was so awesome. When we got to Dulles International Airport, there were probably 300 first- and second-graders there singing songs, thanking us, and giving us cards and letters. The first thing that came to mind was the song “Jesus Loves the Little Children”.
I never really felt as good about the war as I did at that moment.