Do the right thing.
It was a simple, but powerful message that Bonnie and Rodney Salyer instilled into their son, Austin. While there is no handbook to parenting, Bonnie and Rodney worked to ensure their son carried the values of service and respect wherever he went.
It was these values that shaped Austin into a person that was loved and cherished by those who knew him.
On Sept. 16, Austin was killed after negligent gunfire struck through his room at The Lyndon apartments in San Marcos. He was a 20-year-old junior studying criminal justice and minoring in military science at Texas State. Austin was also a member of the Alpha Sigma Phi-Theta lota chapter and was currently serving in Texas State's Army ROTC with plans to serve as an officer in the U.S. Army after graduation.
Austin always had an interest in serving in the military. His ultimate goal, however, was to be a police officer. Austin learned a lot about the military from his father, Rodney, who joined the Army out of high school.
"It's just crushing ... how much he missed out on. How much we're missing out on, and honestly, how much society is missing out on," Rodney said.
Coming to Texas State, Austin decided to follow the paths of his parents who graduated from Southwest Texas State in December of 1997 with degrees in computer information systems. While both Austin and his parents attended school in San Marcos, their experiences were vastly different.
“We didn't really have the quote-unquote, college life,” Rodney said. “We didn't have the dorms. We didn't go floating down the river. So that's kind of what Austin was getting, that we didn't. That's something he loved. He loved the river. He loved San Marcos.”
Austin is Bonnie and Rodney’s only child. He was born nearly two months prematurely at six pounds, four ounces on Dec. 21, 2000, in Grapevine, Texas. Austin's parents said he built up his strength quickly and came home on Christmas Day.
"From there on out, he was always very strong. He was a strong kid," Rodney said.
Austin spent his youth playing sports such as soccer and baseball. In high school, Austin ended up competing for his school's clay target team. It was a new experience for him as he had never done anything like it before. However, his parents said he soon became one of his school's top athletes and ended up competing at the state and national levels.
Rodney and Bonnie said Austin was a smart kid who always did really well in school. They recently found a speech Austin had written for a leadership class in his junior year of high school where he mentioned wanting to serve in the Special Forces
"In my life, I want to live my life for others and be very selfless," Austin said in the letter. "In the future, I want to be in Special Forces. While this is dangerous, I want to protect our country. Sometimes I have a hard time focusing on other people before myself, and I'm trying to put people before myself more. I want to give everything for what I believe in no matter how difficult things get, I will always give everything."
This past June, Austin was on his way to making his dreams of serving in the military reality. He headed to Fort Knox, Kentucky for basic training camp where he spent nearly 30 days learning the ins and outs of the U.S. Army.
With early morning start times and fast-paced training scenarios, Austin soon formed unbreakable bonds with those around him, especially with his bunkmate Scott Winchell.
Unlike the majority of those at camp, Winchell came with several years of military experience. Winchell was familiar with the high-stress environment of basic training, as he completed it nearly eight years ago at Lackland in San Antonio.
After previously serving in the Air Force and Auburn University's ROTC program, Winchell wanted to transition to the National Guard in Alabama but was required to complete basic training again.
Coming to basic camp with years of military experience, Winchell served as a mentor for Austin and other members undergoing training for the first time. As a way to remember Austin and the memories from basic camp, Winchell had bracelets made once he heard Austin had died. Engraved on the bracelets are phrases that represent the backstories of Austin's time at camp.
One of the phrases is "Remember the Alamo," a phrase, that Winchell said, brings a smile to everyone in the platoon. One night during a field training exercise, the platoon's base was jokingly raided by a group of recent advanced camp graduates. It was dead silent when Austin yelled "Remember the Alamo."
"Everybody remembers him yelling that," Winchell said. "Out of all the chaos that was going on, and they just remember what was said. I thought it was hilarious."
Winchell sent the bracelets to a few members from base camp and to Austin's parents. He said bracelets are a traditional way to remember anyone in the military who has died.
"I just thought it would be the best way to carry him with us," Winchell said. "He deserves the full respect of any other person that commits any time to the army. He would have finished for sure."
Being an only child, Rodney said Austin's involvement in ROTC and Alpha Sigma Phi-Theta lota helped fill the void of not having a sibling. One of Austin's best friends and fraternity brother, Cade Trahan, also grew up as an only child.
The two met at Cat Camp. They ended up living in San Marcos Hall their freshman year where Austin's room was one floor above and one room over from Trahan's.
Just from meeting him, Trahan said he could tell Austin was a great person with a lot of potential. That first year at Texas State, Trahan said, Austin made so many friends.
"I really never been around someone like that. Like the way that he was just someone that captured the attention of people. Someone that was just so positive and so caring," Trahan, a political science senior, said. "Austin just was so charismatic. People just looked at him and knew that he was a natural leader."
That year, Austin and Trahan were inseparable. In the spring of 2020, they rushed and pledged to Alpha Sigma Phi-Theta lota. Because of the pandemic, their recruitment was paused until the following semester. Trahan and Austin spent the summer in San Marcos together as roommates where they got even closer.
Trahan said they both had a lot in common and made each other better. They both desired to be better than the average person and wanted more out of their lives.
"He was happy chasing greatness," Trahan said. "He didn't consider it hard work. It was just what he wanted to do. And it really kills me that not only me, but not only his family, not only our fraternity, but just everyone else won't be able to see who he would have become, because he would have been a brainiac. He would have been a hero. He would have been a complete rockstar. And he had nothing but love in his heart. He was just the best guy ever."
The day Austin died was a monumental day for Alpha Sigma Phi. Trahan said seeing the support from his brothers was special and showed him the brotherhood he signed up for.
"Seeing the way that everyone responded with Austin, made me really thankful that we chose to be a part of it," Trahan said. "I can't imagine like, how I would be dealing with this, if this would have happened and we would have just stayed doing our own thing."
For Reagan Chester, a health science and military science sophomore, having Austin as a friend was one of the "best honors in the world."
"Talking to Austin makes you feel special because he really focuses on what you say, he doesn't get distracted," Chester said. "He wants you to know that he's there to talk to you, to listen, to respond to you."
Chester met Austin in ROTC earlier this spring. She said he loved physical training sessions and was always a support system for anyone who might have been falling behind, often running an extra mile or doing an additional 10 pushups to help motivate his peers.
Nearly every night, Chester and Austin would play Call of Duty together. The last time they played was a few nights before Chester left for basic training camp. She said it's a weird feeling knowing they'll never have the chance to play again.
Even with Austin gone, his positive attitude and encouraging spirit continue to impact those in Texas State's ROTC program. Roger Muzquiz, a criminal justice junior, recognizes Austin as someone who made the challenging times enjoyable.
"Now that he's gone, I try to, I still try to carry those things on," Muzquiz said. "I try to look at everything on the brighter side of things."
Muzquiz and Austin spent almost every day together. They had to report for physical training by 5:45 a.m. Tuesday thru Thursday and would bond over how tired they were. Muzquiz was also Austin's fraternity brother.
For Muzquiz, Austin was someone he always wanted to be around. Not having Austin by his side, he said, has been the hardest.
"It feels weird accomplishing without him, knowing that he will be like, literally side by side," Muzquiz. "The hardest part is accomplishing things knowing that he would be there to celebrate."
Outside of school, Austin also had a community of friends at The Lyndon. Gilbert Delgado met Austin within the first few weeks of moving to the apartment complex this past summer. They introduced themselves yelling across their balconies one night and kicked off their friendship from there.
Delgado said he and Austin made new friends together nearly every day. They spent the summer playing volleyball and hanging out by the pool. With just knowing Austin for a few months, Delgado said it is nearly unrealistic of how cool he was.
"[Austin was] just an all-around good guy who kind of made you want to do better for yourself, just by seeing him do good," Delgado said. "I'll never forget him."
Carlos Inman, an international relations junior, also moved to The Lyndon this past summer where he met Austin. At the time, Inman had recently gotten a divorce and did not really know many people in town besides his family. He spent two weeks straight at the pool alone when Austin approached him one day and asked if he wanted to hang out.
Inman gravitated toward Austin's positive and welcoming personality instantly. He said Austin did a lot for him mentally and treated him like a brother.
"It's hard to put into words what kind of character he had," Inman said. "I feel like words don't do his character justice. He was just a very genuine human being ... he would literally give you the shirt off his back. He just took care of people. He made people smile. He was just a wonderful human being."
While he understood the possibility of dying in the line of service, Rodney said Austin was okay with that as long as he was serving others. For Austin to lose his life while trying to sleep is incredibly painful, he added.
It was around midnight when Austin was struck by gunfire. His parents said he didn't die peacefully in his sleep and made it halfway through his apartment before collapsing to the ground. They say it makes them suffer knowing that Austin suffered.
While processing their son's death has been one of the most challenging experiences of their lives, Bonnie said telling his story and hearing how he impacted others has been therapeutic.
"It was really hard at first, like the first day. We couldn't even talk, eat, we couldn't sleep, we really couldn't even function," Bonnie said. "As the days went by, right after it happened, just being able to tell his story and relive some of our memories with him and people tell us how he impacted their lives was tremendously helpful."
At Austin's funeral service, his family asked those in attendance to come casual and in clothing that represented how they knew Austin. Members from Austin's clay target team in high school came dressed in their uniforms. His childhood soccer coach wore a t-shirt that had the painted handprints of the kids on the team.
In lieu of flowers, Austin's parents have been requesting donations for the Spirit of a Hero charity, where funds will be going to Dan Licardo, an ex-Navy Seal who trained Austin on gun safety and how to fire a handgun. Licardo was in a car accident that left him with severe injuries, including losing both of his legs.
Around 300 people attended Austin's service. While Bonnie and Rodney knew Austin had many friends and touched a lot of people in his life, they said it was incredible and overwhelming to see the crowd of people who showed up to honor their son.
"He was our only child and we put everything into him," Rodney said. "He was the best of us together. He was just better, better than us."