Tell the Kids I Love Them
For Valerie Boyd
By Jeremy Redmon
"Sunlight," 2016, lambda print, by Alexander Binder. Courtesy the artist
My father was missing. The last time I had seen him was that morning in 1986 when he dropped me off at my high school near Dayton, Ohio. If he tried to send me a signal, I missed it. If he patted me on the knee as he occasionally did to show me he loved me, I do not remember it. If there was something wrong as I stepped out of his gray Oldsmobile Starfire, I did not notice. I headed to my classes at Walter E. Stebbins High School, oblivious to what my father had planned.
After the final bell rang, I returned home. But he did not. My mother called his office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where he worked as an electrical engineer. She learned he had left at noon. Then, she drove around looking for him. She called the police. A uniformed officer arrived at our door. Scared, I ran away—out of our drab apartment complex, away from my pregnant mother, my infant brother, and that policeman. The rhythm of my run distracted me, kept my mind off what was happening. I must have been warming up for what was to come. I needed to be ready for the long sprint ahead.
When I finally stopped running and returned home, the cop was gone. But more grim-faced policemen arrived at our one-bedroom apartment early the next morning. I could read it in their faces—they did not want to be there. My mother screamed, and I retreated into the bedroom, took my brother from his crib, and held him tightly.
A woman in a crisp white dress shirt showed up with the officers that morning. She must have been a social worker. She followed me around and watched me closely. I could see the worry in her eyes. She took my brother from my arms and told me it was OK to cry. Initially, I resisted. I was embarrassed and did not want her to see me weep. I turned my back to her and let go, triggering what felt like an earthquake. I could sense her watching as the shock pulsed through me, as my sobs escaped my control, as my shoulders shook. The police had come to deliver the news that my father was dead.
They buried him at Arlington National Cemetery on a hill that gently rises in sight of the Pentagon, where he once worked. I wept when they presented me with the tightly folded American flag that covered his closed casket, a bullet-colored coffin long enough to hold his tall frame. The shots from the ceremonial riflemen startled me. They were like exclamation points at the end of an urgent message from the universe: Your father is gone! I needed to hear that message and remember it because there were many times before and after his funeral when I imagined he was alive and that I would one day see him walking down the street. My heart raced when I glanced at crowds and spotted strangers who resembled him. He occasionally appeared in my dreams, acting as if nothing had happened. I remember feeling relieved in those dreams, as if I was finally able to take a full breath.
Whenever I accomplished something important, I wondered if he would have been proud. Whenever I made a mistake, I wondered what he had learned about the world while he was in it, lessons I would have to learn on my own. Whenever I struggled with an important decision, I wondered who he was and, by extension, who I was. I dwelled on the one question that held the answers to many of the others—why did he kill himself?
Donald Lee Redmon was lean, tall, strong, intelligent, a good writer, a hard worker. He was handsome in his blue Air Force uniform. His Kentucky accent clung to him. When he said “fire,” it sounded like “far.” He told jokes with a deadpan delivery. Once, when my paternal grandfather asked him if he wanted a roll during dinner, my dad responded: “No, I think I’ll just sit here.” I remember the manly, sandpaper feel of his unshaven cheeks. I remember his big hands, his big feet, the way he threw footballs awkwardly. Seeking to connect with me, he brought me gifts from his overseas missions: Matchbox cars, multicolored gummy bears, a banana-yellow stereo. When I was eleven, he took me to McDonald’s for a meal and then to see Jim Henson’s imaginative and strange film The Dark Crystal. It was just us. I could tell he loved me as we sat together in the darkened theater, knee to knee. I will never forget that day.
At the same time, he could be taciturn, withdrawn. When he came home from work, he would often disappear into the garage or the basement and tinker with something, rarely interacting with any of us. Now, I wonder if he was wrestling with his experiences in combat, especially the close calls he had that one night toward the end of the Vietnam War. He never told me about them. I learned about them on my own years after his death by digging through military histories, studying his Air Force personnel records, and interviewing his commander.
Lit with yellow-white flashes, thick, black clouds of exploding flak mushroomed in the sky as dozens of American bombers flew over North Vietnam. SAMs—surface-to-air missiles—raced toward the B-52s. My father served as the lead electronic warfare officer for the assault. Protecting his plane and fellow crewmen, he tracked signals from the incoming missiles, jammed North Vietnamese radar systems, and dispersed chaff to confuse them. It was the night after Christmas in 1972, the year after I was born. The mission commander, Russ McCarthy, flew on my father’s plane, watching the SAMs through the cockpit windows. McCarthy told me the missiles resembled flaming telephone poles spiraling at them. After spotting twenty-six of them tearing through the night sky, McCarthy asked himself, “Good God, can I live through this damn thing?” One missile flew so close to my father’s bomber that it illuminated the cockpit like daylight. Another found its target, blowing out of the sky a bomb-laden B-52. A second B-52 went down after the copilot calmly announced to his crew the impending impact of a SAM. Radio traffic buzzed with warnings of MIG fighter jets closing in. As the B-52s dropped their bombs and turned away from Hanoi, a third bomber was hit by a SAM. Only the gunner and copilot would survive the crash landing in Thailand.
Called Operation Linebacker II, the mission was President Richard Nixon’s attempt to hasten the end of a costly war that had sharply divided America and caused so much misery, death, and destruction. My father flew in four of the campaign’s eleven days. He was credited with saving his crew from a certain direct hit by a SAM during that campaign and was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for “outstanding heroism and selfless devotion to duty.” He received the same medal for flying two months later in an assault in neighboring Laos, then embroiled in a secret CIA-backed expansion of the war against the North Vietnamese.
In the audio tapes he sent my mother during the war, he didn’t talk about those commendations, the sixteen Air Medals he received, Laos, Vietnam, or the U.S. service members who were killed in the air, or the civilians who were killed on the ground during his missions. Instead, he imagined finding a job at an electronics company in Florida and buying a home there. Maybe he was distracting himself as he awaited his perilous missions. By focusing on his future, he could have been forcing himself to believe he would make it home. He could have been convincing himself not to give in to the nerve-racking fear of getting shot down, being beaten, tortured, even killed. He survived more than three hundred combat missions over Southeast Asia before returning home.
Home kept changing for us after the Vietnam War. My father continued his career in the Air Force, requiring us to move often. The military first assigned him to Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, where he flew on reconnaissance missions, presumably collecting intelligence about the Soviet Union. Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were briefed on the information he helped collect. We moved to the Washington, D.C., area when he was promoted to the Pentagon. That is where he interacted with intelligence agencies in the Carter administration, including the CIA and National Security Agency. He later became the operations officer for a reconnaissance squadron in Nebraska at Strategic Air Command, then the organization in charge of the nation’s bombers and most of its nuclear missile arsenal. A lieutenant colonel at that point, he was well on his way to achieving his dream of becoming a full colonel, the rank represented by a silver eagle with outstretched wings, a “full bird.” And then he was gone.
His suicide crushed me, drained me of confidence, and left me bitter, insecure, and alienated. I felt like an exposed nerve, hypersensitive to much of everything negative that came my way, no matter how small, no matter how inconsequential. For much of my life, I could not tell others about my father and his accomplishments without being retraumatized. Discussing suicide is taboo for many people. Still, some well-meaning strangers did ask the question: How did he die? I usually responded this way: It’s a long story. I’ll tell you some other time. I did not want to relive the pain of that night in Ohio and hear my voice quaver, especially in front of strangers. So my father’s suicide became a chasm. I could inch up to that void, but not peer into it for the answers I was seeking, out of fear that I would fall far inside it myself.
Keeping a journal and writing poetry helped me simultaneously express and escape from my pain. After graduating from college, I found a way to support myself through my writing. I became a newspaper reporter focused on finding the truth. I gained confidence traveling on assignment across the South, interviewing powerful people and learning about the world while writing about crime, government, and politics. And then I saw an opportunity to seek some of the courage my father had and that I desperately needed. America and its allies had invaded Iraq and the U.S. military was allowing journalists to embed with troops on the ground. Driven by my ambition as a journalist and a desire to better understand my father and myself, I volunteered.
Iwas almost killed less than a week after I arrived in Iraq in December of 2004. It happened in a U.S. military mess tent in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. The blast wave vibrated through my body, knocking my lunch tray out of my hands. I felt it echoing inside me. It was as if the explosion were screaming in my chest. I spun around to see a massive fireball burning through the top of the mess tent. The blast wrecked the seating area I had walked through seconds before. I had been about to head back to that spot and sit down and eat my lunch. Blood pooled on the floor there amid the half-eaten food, overturned chairs, and stray kitchen utensils. Soldiers fled past me. I ran after them into a concrete blast shelter outside. When I thought it was safe, I headed back inside to the center of the blast and measured the distance to where I stood when the bomb exploded: fifty paces. That day—December 21, 2004—a suicide bombing claimed by the jihadist group Ansar al-Sunna killed fourteen U.S. troops, four civilian contractors, and four Iraqi soldiers in that chow hall. It was the single deadliest attack on a U.S. military installation during the war in Iraq.
Strangely, nearly being killed made me feel more alive. For mental clarity, there is nothing like it. I felt things much more intensely, even after I left Iraq. Colors were brighter. Scents were stronger. Sounds were sharper. I considered my mortality, my purpose, and what I was going to do with the rest of my life.
Despite the dangers or perhaps because of them, I returned twice more in 2005 and 2006 as an embedded journalist to report on what was happening in Iraq, much of which had been devastated by the war. And the close calls kept coming. Once, I scrambled into hiding as a rocket-propelled grenade screamed over me at a U.S. outpost south of Baghdad. Another time, I dived into a Humvee for cover as mortar rounds exploded nearby at a different military base in the same region. I witnessed roadside bomb attacks on U.S. troops as I rode in their convoys through rubble-strewn communities that were helplessly caught in the middle. On Thanksgiving Day in 2005, I felt a familiar sensation radiating through my body when a roadside bomb struck the Humvee I was riding in through western Iraq, stunning me and the Georgia National Guardsmen inside and enveloping us with thick smoke and dust. Everything slowed down. I felt the explosion suck air from me. I gazed at sand suspended in the air. I saw our driver hunched over the steering wheel. Next to me, the gunner’s legs trembled. I felt relief as I recognized we were all still alive.
Between my assignments in Iraq and still after I returned home for good, I suffered from hypervigilance, nightmares, and alienation. Because of my father’s suicide, those problems were not new to me. That made them easy to recognize, though they were surfacing in different ways. Loud noises rattled me. I scanned the sides of roads for suspicious objects. I dreamed about trying to escape Iraq. I can imagine my father suffering similarly after being shot at over Southeast Asia, but he never talked about such feelings with me. We never talked about how disastrous war is. He could have been trying to spare me.
When I returned home, I channeled my grief over his suicide and the trauma I experienced in Iraq into action. I set to work writing about people who had survived fires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, mass shootings, and wars. I wrote about the Syrian refugee crisis, the opioid overdose epidemic, and the coronavirus pandemic. I found it cathartic to write about such trauma and resilience. Eventually, I began teaching journalism students at Kennesaw State University how to safely and responsibly report on trauma and the people affected by it. I advise my students to be transparent, to listen intently, to strive for empathy. I teach them these things because the grieving people they find after all the first responders have left the scene may be just like themselves and they may be just like me—shocked and vulnerable amid trauma. My students have written moving memoirs about persevering with mental illness, coming to grips with addiction in their families, and mourning the loss of loved ones to COVID-19. It did not feel right to hold back when all the people I was writing about or teaching were being so brave in sharing their stories. Through the examples they set for me and the reporting I did in Iraq and elsewhere, I finally found enough of the courage I needed to talk about my father, dig for more answers about him, and write about what I found.
I relentlessly sought to learn about him and his suicide, applying the same skills I have picked up reporting for newspapers for nearly thirty years. I studied the Vietnam War. I blanketed government agencies with public records requests for his military personnel files. The documents I gathered show his struggles began in Nebraska when I was in elementary school. He felt his right foot falling asleep. His speech became slurred. His face went numb. His leg twitched at night. He felt pins and needles in his left shoulder and left arm. His sense of taste disappeared. Cold air burned his skin. He suffered from double vision. He felt clumsy. His handwriting worsened. U.S. Air Force doctors identified a lesion on his brain and diagnosed him with multiple sclerosis and an abnormal heart rhythm, concluding he was totally disabled. Seeing my father—someone I considered so strong—so weakened was unnerving for me.
The Veterans Affairs Department responded to my federal Freedom of Information Act request by mailing me a compact disc loaded with nearly one thousand pages of his medical records, correspondence, and other military documents. That is where I found it, the official coroner’s report about his death. I already knew many of the details it contained. Still, my heartbeat quickened as I read the document for the first time and as it transported me back to that day, September 25, 1986. My father had checked into a Red Roof Inn less than seven miles from our apartment. Police found him in bed with his Walkman. I wish I knew which songs eased him to the other side as he overdosed on his medication. His autopsy shows he had antidepressants, painkillers, and sedatives in his system. He left a note in his Oldsmobile. Feeling betrayed and abandoned by him, I burned the note not long after he died, so I don’t remember everything it said or the exact wording. But I know the gist of it. Addressed to my mother, it ended with this: Tell the kids I love them. I recall it was written in present tense, as if he would continue to love me and my brothers after his death, as if saying he loved us meant we would carry that message for the rest of our lives because there would be no other words from him. He could not undo what he had written. It was permanent.
I will never know for certain why he did what he did. But after studying everything I have gathered about him, I have formed my own beliefs about his decision. He was not the same once he was removed from flying status in 1984 and then released from active duty and honorably discharged from the Air Force the following year. His illness caused him severe pain, robbed him of his ability to support himself and his family in uniform as he had for seventeen years, and drove him into a deep depression. It requires a certain kind of courage to kill yourself, not knowing what comes next, not knowing whether there is an afterlife. In taking his own life, he must have relied on the same courage that got him through his combat missions over Southeast Asia. I believe he was thinking about me, my brothers, and my mother when he swallowed those pills. Racked with despair, perhaps he thought he was helping us. Perhaps he thought we would not have to take care of him and watch him fade during his illness, to see our idea of him change drastically, to worry about him worrying about us.
Because of his illness, my father lost control of his body. But by killing himself, he regained control of it. In doing so, he took control of his fate, which changed my fate. Maybe that was how it was supposed to be all along. I often wonder if his death was meant to be—if everything that came after it depended on his suicide, including my decisions to become a journalist, to head off to war, to teach others about what I have learned, and to become a father.
With his quiet demeanor, his big hands and big feet, and his deadpan delivery of jokes, my teenage son Casey reminds me of my dad. When he was little, Casey sometimes asked me why he didn’t have a paternal grandfather. I was vague about what happened because I worried Casey wasn’t ready to hear it. I also worried I wasn’t ready to tell him. Without saying more, I told him my dad died after suffering from an illness. Casey said he felt sorry for me. I responded that he shouldn’t feel that way because I had him—my son—in my life and that was enough for me. My wife JoAnn and I decided last year Casey was old enough to know. He is about to turn fourteen, the same age I was when my father died. He listened intently as I sat next to his bed one night and told him the whole story. And then he thanked me.
While the coronavirus pandemic has driven many people apart, it has drawn Casey and me closer together. Avoiding crowds and indoor events, we have ventured outdoors more often in North Georgia. We rode bikes along the Chattahoochee River in Roswell. We fished at Lake Allatoona. We tubed down the Cartecay River in Ellijay. I have continued helping coach his lacrosse team in Woodstock. We both love the sport, nicknamed “the medicine game” by its Native American inventors, who believe it heals those who play it. We attend lacrosse tournaments together. Casey plays on one field. And I officiate matches on a neighboring one, trying to resist the urge to take my eyes off my game and search for him in his.
My father’s suicide carved a deep gash in me. Though that wound has been a source of intense pain, it has also given me a greater capacity to experience joy. These are the best days of my life.
I often tell Casey I love him, perhaps too much. I tell him when I wake him up in the morning, when he heads off to school, when he returns home, when I rub his feet as he prepares to go to sleep at night. I am also determined to show him I love him by spending as much time as I can by his side, by sharing with him what I have learned about the world while I have been in it, by helping him learn who he is through who I am and who my father was.
Need help? Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.