Oct. 16—Today's veteran: Bill Austin, 70s
Born: Dayton, Ohio
Residence: St. Simons Island
Service: Air Force, 4 years
Duties: Sentry dog handler
Duty stations: Lackland Air Force Base, Texas and Kincheloe Air Force Base, Michigan
His story: Bill Austin was working in a steel mill in Gary, Indiana, in his early 20s when he decided it wasn't a job he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
He decided to enlist in the Air Force because he believed it had better facilities and training opportunities than other military branches. Testing determined he was best suited in law enforcement.
After he graduated basic training in Lackland Air Force Base, he was sent to Kincheloe Air Force Base in the upper peninsula of Michigan. He volunteered to be trained as a security dog handler after he determined the K-9 branch provided the best career options.
His job was to be part of the security force patrolling the perimeter of the base to protect the bombers carrying nuclear bombs as part of the Strategic Air Command.
His first challenge after training was to bond with a dog whose previous handler left the Air Force after his tour of duty ended. It was a time consuming challenge to get the dog to accept him.
He started by going to the kennel to feed, water and talk with the dog. He said the dog wasn't very enthusiastic about having a new handler, and it took several weeks before he could go into the dog's kennel.
"I started taking him out for exercise and letting him do what he wanted to do," Austin said. "Then we started doing things he had done with his previous handler."
They transitioned to an obstacle course, where the dog learned to accept commands by his new handler, and they could start their duties providing base security.
Austin served during the Cold War, so there was a high level of security around a base with nuclear weapons. He never had a threatening incident during his time at the base, though he did get attacked by an owl one night.
The upper peninsula of Michigan has brutally cold winters, but Austin said the gear he was given kept him comfortably warm.
"The Air Force equipped us well," he said. "Cold weather was never an issue."
He worked at night on one of two shifts: from sunset to midnight or from midnight to sunrise, six days on and three days off. Austin said he started taking college courses in the daytime and kept taking them the entire time he served.
He hitchhiked to classes at Lake Superior State College for more than two years. He also taught Sunday school classes to third- and fourth-graders during his time in the Air Force.
When he left the Air Force, Austin returned to the steel mill, but this time in a new position thanks to his military service and college education. And the company gave him credit for his military service on their seniority list.
"The education the Air Force afforded me is permanent," he said. "It was a blessing."
Austin said he made lifelong friendships and wouldn't change a thing if he could do it over.
"I could have gone to other places," he said. "It was God influenced. Being ably to do that was a blessing."
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