The November 2023 Kosciusko County Veteran of the Month served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.
Gerald J. Russell, or better known by Jerry, was born April 10, 1948, in Glen Park, a suburb of Gary. He is the oldest of three sons born to John and Jannet Rutkowski, according to the biography prepared and read by Kosciusko County Veteran Service Officer Darryl McDowell at the county commissioners meeting Monday.
After graduation from Lew Wallace High School in 1967, like every young man of that time, going into the service was on their minds whether they were college bound or “just looking into what their options were after high school,” McDowell said. Consequently, wanting to fulfill his duty to his country, Russell checked all the different military branches to see what they had to offer. His father and four of his five uncles all served in World War II.
After visiting, testing and discussing job training opportunities in all four military recruiting offices, he chose the Air Force because of the education they offered best suited his future career choices.
On Feb. 6, 1968, he raised his right hand to take an oath of enlistment into the United States Air Force. On April 19, 1968, Russell reported to Amarillo Air Force Base (AFB) in Texas for eight weeks of basic training. He was sent to Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls, Texas, for 18 weeks of electrical power production schooling. There, he learned how to build, repair and operate generators, earning him top honors at graduation, something he had not experienced before in school, McDowell said.
From there, Russell was sent to K.I. Sawyer AFB in Marquette County, Mich., near the center of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. While there, Russell received orders to report to Clark AFB in the Philippines in support of the Vietnam War. He was assigned to the 1st Mobile Communications Group, known as The Black Hatters, whose work was often highly classified that many of the service members’ discharge papers did not reflect service in the combat zone. Being assigned to the 1st MOB from a plush stateside assignment or technical school was a shock for most of the younger airmen, McDowell stated.
Russell was honored and little scared to be assigned this type of unit but soon became “swallowed up by the camaraderie and high moral of his organization,” McDowell said.
During his seven-month assignment, he deployed to 18 - often difficult and dangerous locations under austere conditions - missions throughout Vietnam. He quickly learned to tell the difference between short and long rounds or “worse” impacts of enemy incoming mortar and artillery rounds to his locations.
He was then assigned Offutt AFB, Strategic Air Command in Omaha, Neb., as part of the Base Emergency Engineering Force, “what we know as ‘Prime BEEF,’” McDowell stated. “It’s part of the Red Horse, which is a very quick reaction force that deploys anywhere within 36 hours for construction.”
McDowell said Russell went through his four years of enlistment and made the rank of staff sergeant in three years, “which is pretty remarkable.” He earned numerous accolades during his enlistment.
Russell was honorably discharged on April 18, 1972.
He returned to the job he left prior to his military service with Bethlehem Steel located in Porter County, Ind., temporarily until he could apply and get accepted to the Lake County Electrical Apprenticeship School. This was the career he yearned for that his education in the U.S. Air Force helped him achieve, McDowell said. Even after Russell’s graduation from the apprenticeship program, he continued to pursue higher education to further enhance his skills in his life’s work.
Unfortunately, his pursuit for applying to earn master electrician status was cut short due to complications in both of his knees, which required bilateral total knee replacements. This forced him to retire but after recovery he continued to used his knowledge and skills in construction to volunteer for organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Catholic Charities and his own church.
Jerry and Teresa have been married for 43 years. She retired from nursing after his knee surgeries. They have two children who are in service occupations. They also have three granddaughters and one 2-year-old grandson.
After receiving the framed certificate signed by the commissioners, Russell said, “I feel I was one of the lucky ones. The Air Force for me was a great opportunity that I tried to make the most of. It really helped shape who I became as a person. Thank you very much for this honor.”