Joining Up: Sharing My Woundedness
Dave Redmon

Like a lot of veterans, I feel uneasy whenever I hear folks tell me “Thank you for your service.” This is a story about my military experience.

I was born a little past the midpoint of World War II, the third of four children in a farm family native to southeast Kansas. All of us came to life at home except for me. I was born in a California hospital because a fire burned down our barn, destroying our draft horses. So, in 1943 my dad moved his family west to be near his sister and her husband in the Bay Area where he took a job helping build ships for the Navy.

After the war ended, the family came home, able to buy some rocky farmland and put money down on our first real tractor, a used Farmall Model M. Not two years later, my 41-year-old father was dead, the victim of a farm accident. Three months after, my 34-year-old mother gave birth to my sister. With my brother and another sister, 11 and 12 years older than me, we hung on until extreme heat and drought forced a sellout in 1954. By then my mother had remarried and my older siblings had moved away and started families, but the rest of us moved to Parsons, a railroad town of 13,000 Anglo, Black, Hispanic and Indigenous people just 23 miles north of the Oklahoma line. I was in fifth grade.

As a loner in a new place, “rube” and “hayseed” were some of the names I heard while adjusting to my new life. I could rely on a mother with a factory job to bring home the bacon, a cute if bothersome little sister, a stepfather who loved to play the role of Santa Claus every December and an old bike to get around town. I adopted a baby raccoon he had found and brought home, learned to swim, went hunting and fishing, played baseball, got a paper route and found out how to meet customers in their homes to collect their 35 cents a week. I met my best friend in seventh grade when he gave me a ride home on his bike after I discovered a flat tire on mine. Not long after, he invited me to church with his family. (We still go biking together.)

Barely 12 years had passed since the war ended, so veterans were everywhere. Some were parents of classmates, while others served as schoolteachers, coaches, church leaders or owners of grocery stores, where soon I would go to work part time for Bob Brewer, who owned an IGA with his twin brother Bill, also a veteran. Some, like my one-armed math teacher Mr. Hudgins, had suffered visible wounds. My stepfather Frank served as a Navy Seabee with Marines at Guadalcanal and on other islands in the South Pacific, where he was gravely wounded before spending many months in a hospital bed. Amidst a growing economy and among hometown heroes who had helped defeat Hitler and Hirohito, I looked up to these guys, like everyone else.

We got our first television set in 1953 in time to watch “Victory at Sea,” a new documentary series based on extensive film footage of battle scenes shot during World War II. During my most formative years, I watched those 26 documentaries time and again come Sunday evening. Coming of age, it dawned on me that I could seek adventure while doing my patriotic duty. A few weeks after high school, it surprised no one when that old buddy and I found a recruiter and joined up. We reported for Navy boot camp on Aug. 5, 1962—coincidentally the day Marilyn Monroe died.

I wanted to attend flight school but flunked the physical because of stuttering (which I eventually came to view as a blessing). So after graduating from Kansas State with a history degree, I joined 5,000 men aboard an aircraft carrier that included dozens of sleek jets—a bristling arsenal at sea. We crossed the North Atlantic and visited several ports around the Mediterranean, departing just weeks before Israel’s Six Day War. Returning to Virginia, we took leave to visit our families but in November 1967, 260 members of our air squadron flew to San Diego to join another carrier bound for the South China Sea. There we would pound a tiny former French colony (Vietnam) whose name I’d never even heard of  just four years earlier when I joined up.

I was part of an all-Navy Personnel Accounting Computer Installation working as a remote mail-in correspondent onboard a floating fortress, so I had only a little skin in the game. But it wasn’t long before our outfit lost friends we knew well, a crew of two whose A-6 bomber was shot down over Hanoi and never heard from again. In January, the Tet Offensive shocked everyone, as did President Lyndon Johnson’s announcement that the U.S. would pause bombing in North Vietnam and that he would not run for a second term because of the sagging popularity of this undeclared war. Even though we were far from home and cut off from all mass media except worn copies of Time and Newsweek, I could feel a growing resentment. We had been lied to, and we were heartbroken. Our anger was palpable.

I took leave in April to visit Japan and a friend from college born in China while her father had been a newspaper editor there. One morning at breakfast in a Tokyo suburb, listening with her to an English-language radio broadcast, we heard the terrible news of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. After nearly six years of active and reserve duty, I flew home in mid-May to a different country. As I began graduate studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, news of another assassination rocked the world. This time it was Bobby Kennedy. Massive, bloody demonstrations in Chicago that August marked a turning point in history. The world—large parts of it anyway—seemed on fire.
But I was too busy being me.
So, like most, I remained
in denial.

I’d studied the disconcerting history and methods of propaganda and censorship in the mass media and popular culture before beginning to practice journalism at The Kansas City Star. Slowly it dawned on me that even though I was in the news business, I was first a consumer of mass media and thus the incomplete news we call propaganda. I struggled to admit that I/we had been duped and deceived, played as suckers. And even though it still brings tears to my eyes, I recognized that my beloved Victory at Sea suite was instrumental in glorifying the acceptability of war to further national goals and ambitions, which I now rejected. It was difficult handling my cognitive dissonance until I learned to salute all ordinary people who suffer and serve while doing their best, whether guardians and rescuers, builders, custodians, nurses and caregivers, teachers, artists, musicians or missionaries, because none of us ever knows the real score until it’s all over and we gather by the river on the other side.

Looking back, I acknowledge my role in supporting the machinery of violence, but despite the continuing woundedness I regret none of my personal experiences. I still salute all those, in uniform or not, who sacrifice themselves in love for something greater than themselves.