By LINDSAY OLIVIER
NORTH KINGSTOWN – “Welcome home, Papa, for the last time”, were the words Exeter resident Chief Master Sergeant Gary Austin saw when he stepped off the C-130J aircraft at Quonset Airbase last Wednesday after being in Afghanistan since August.
Austin, who returned to his family just in time for Thanksgiving, is part of the 143rd Airlift Wing Unit and, though this was his last deployment, he doesn’t officially retire from the Rhode Island National Guard until June.
“We didn’t think he’d be home for the holidays,” said Austin’s wife Sandy. “This was such a blessing.”
Austin began his 40-year career serving the country in 1971 when he enlisted on his own into the Air Force as a way of avoiding being drafted into the military and having no say in what branch he would serve.
He began his career working at Bradley Air National Guard Base in Connecticut where he worked as an aircraft mechanic, a job he held up until 10 years ago when he became supervisor over the mechanics. He then moved to T.F. Green Airport working on C119’s and C130’s before moving to Quonset where the National Guard base has been since the 1980’s.
His first deployment was Desert Storm in 1990, where he was based in London and out of harm’s way, and that was the beginning of nine deployments over the course of 21 years.
“I was lucky in the regard that I wasn’t deployed for years at a time,” Austin said. “The longest I was away was six months. It just so happened that it occurred more frequently throughout the years.”
Though Austin says he was lucky he wasn’t gone for long periods of time, it was tough on his two daughters and four grandchildren who he described as “blubbering” messes when he would be deployed.
Past deployments included two trips to Kuwait, three to Qatar and Afghanistan and one to Amman.
During his most recent deployment, mechanics worked in 12-hour shifts, six days a week, at Bagram Air force Base in Afghanistan, working on C130J’s in which 10 were launched every day carrying people, food and ammunition to soldiers in battle. It was the mechanic’s duty to make sure the planes were running correctly. Austin was one of the supervisors that oversaw that operation.
A turning point in his career came on the morning of Sept. 11, 2011. At the time of the attacks, he was in a plane on the runway at Quonset heading to training when his unit was told to return to the hangar and wait for instructions that never came.
“We sat in the hangar and, like everyone else, watched the events unfold. I was extremely angry at our country that we could let this happen. We knew it was happening and ignored it.”
What started off as fairly short deployments turned into lengthy ones because of 9/11. Austin said everything changed, from the the way training was done to what they were being trained on.
Though being deployed during war time could lead many individuals to want to leave the armed services, Austin actually volunteered for his last five deployments, explaining that there was no way he could see his fellow service men and women get deployed while he stayed home.
“It was just not in my nature to let that happen,” he said. “I knew what I was signing up for when I joined. It was something I had to do and it wouldn’t have been fair for me to sit back and watch them go.”
It was a decision Sandy was OK with.
“I knew if Gary decided not to go, he’d be pacing the house saying ‘I need to be over there.’”
Finishing up a career that spans four decades, Austin is grateful for the camaraderie and the opportunity he had to be a mentor to other soldiers and he says he continues to support the mission of the National Guard.
But, over the last 40 years, he says he’s become less tolerant of the American people themselves, feeling that they’re not paying attention to what’s important.
“We don’t have our priorities in check,” he said. “We’re wasting time on silly things and not getting anything accomplished. I think this country gets ahead of ourselves too abruptly and never finishes what they preach.”
Because Austin was a mechanic, he wasn’t involved in the infantry side so, more often than not, he was located outside of harm’s way. But he still carried an M16 rifle around at all times and was ready to use it at a moment’s notice.
“It wasn’t uncommon to hear rockets and bombs,” he added.
In his post-service years, Austin will be tackling Sandy’s “honey-do” list and working to inform his local congressmen about the use of contractors in the army. While on base, there are around 5,000 local nationals ranging from 18 to 50 years-old who cook, clean and build structures.
Of those 5,000, Austin says, around 10 percent are spies and Austin remembers years ago, one Afghan local had been working on the base for about five years and it was later found that he was a member of Al-Qaida.
“No one knows about them,” he said. “People think it’s fellow soldiers who are cooking our meals and that’s just not the case. It’s all apart of the philosophy of war, teach them the American way.”
The locals wear colored badges: green means they can be by themselves, yellow means they need to be accompanied by a local wearing a green badge and a red badge means they need an army escort.
Despite all of that, however, Austin says he has no regrets.
He still loves what he does, loves his “second family” and is thinking of his next career.