Editor's note: This is the second in a series, "Stories of Honor," that recognize the service and sacrifice of military personnel from Central Illinois. To make a nomination, go to pantagraph.com/storiesofhonor
BLOOMINGTON — Anyone with a military service background deserves to be called a hero, but Jim Sengpiel of Bloomington is admired for his courage and achievements beyond the two years he served in the Army.
“Jim has been a loving husband, a wonderful father, step-father and grandfather,” said his wife, Esther. “Our children love and admire him and he will always be my hero.”
Sengpiel earned hero status by serving in the Army from October 1966 to August 1968. A Spec. 4, he was awarded a Vietnam Service Ribbon with two Stars, a Republic of Vietnam Campaign Ribbon, a Vietnam Tet Offensive Ribbon and a National Defense Ribbon.
After graduating from El Paso High School, he planned on attending Lincoln Christian College, but the draft changed that. He was shipped to II Field Force Headquarters, the largest corps command in Vietnam.
“I supervised the military police that guarded II Field Force Headquarters, including Gen. William Westmoreland and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara,” he said.
Memories of those days still haunt him, he said.
“There were a lot of times when bullets would fly past me, or they would hit right beside me,” said Sengpiel. “Sometimes a rocket would hit real close to me. Twice, two MPs standing beside me were shot.”
When he returned home, he joined State Farm, working as a business analyst and retiring in 2006. Esther, a State Farm technician, retired in 2005. They have been married 28 years, are the parents of Christina Sengpiel, Bloomington; Aaron Wissmiller, Cooksville; and Derek Wissmiller, of Chicago; and have four grandchildren.
There must have been a reason why Sengpiel’s life was spared in Vietnam and on the night of July 1, 1973, he realized why.
“I had attended my high school reunion and was driving back to my home in Normal,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ray and Mary Killian of Ellsworth were headed to a Kappa restaurant and turned onto U.S. 51 at Hudson Road. Their car was hit from behind by another vehicle, spinning them around and into Sengpiel’s vehicle.
Sengpiel was not hurt, but he knew the Killians were in danger. Their car was on fire and they were trapped.
Without hesitating, Sengpiel pulled Ray from the wreckage through an open window, then did the same for Mary.
“We would have burned to death if it hadn’t been for Jim,” Mary told The Pantagraph.
Sengpiel, who will turn 75 in August, is proud of his time in the Army, but equally as proud of saving the Killians. He was awarded the Carnegie Medal for Heroism a year later and recognized by the Town of Normal with a council resolution.
“Being married to someone who dedicated a portion of his life in service to our great nation is something of which I'm incredibly proud,” Esther said. “Many soldiers like Jim never received the recognition that they deserved when they returned from the service. It’s nice that he is being honored.”