When this Navy SEAL lost his face in battle, he found his true mission
This post is reprinted with permission from NationSwell, new digital media company focused on American innovation and renewal.
After he was attacked in Iraq, Jason Redman could have retired to a quiet, private life. Instead he shed his anger so he could dress other vets.
The questions themselves — were you in a car accident? a motorcycle crash? — didn't bother Redman. The fact that no one ever asked whether he'd been hurt in combat did. "It really started to make me bitter," Redman, 38, says. "We'd been at war in Iraq for six years at that point and I thought, 'Wow does the average American that I fought for recognize the sacrifice that I've made and that others have made?'"
Redman's irritation began to fester, and after a particularly bothersome gawking session at the airport ("It'd been culminating, and I'd just reached my breaking point"), he took to the Internet to vent. Instead of angry Tweets or passive aggressive Facebook messages, Redman decided to wear his defense. He began designing T-shirts featuring slogans like, "Stop staring. I got shot by a machine gun. It would have killed you." An American flag adorned the back of each one. As he started wearing his designs, strangers began to nod in appreciation, even thanking him at times. Redman knew he was onto something — that there were countless other wounded warriors who felt the same way.
So in 2009 he created Wounded Wear, a nonprofit that donates clothing kits to warriors hurt in combat and their loved ones, as well as to the families of fallen soldiers. The kits contain jackets, workout gear and T-shirts that read "Scarred so that others may live free," a toned-down version of the original slogans Redman used to print. His organization also accepts existing clothing from service members, which the nonprofit modifies to accommodate short-term rehabilitation needs or permanent bodily damage: One of the most requested alterations comes from amputees, whose prosthetic limbs make it difficult to put on regular pants. Wounded Wear provides everything to service members free of charge, raising money from donations as well as apparel sales on its website. So far, they've donated nearly 2,000 kits.
Though he always knew he would serve and support others who served, Redman says that Wounded Wear is hardly the career path he dreamed for himself. Born into a military family, he often heard stories about his paternal grandfather, a highly decorated World War II B-24 pilot who once crash-landed a plane after being hit, and kept his entire team alive. As a kid, Redman loved to play with an old parachute that his father, a member of the airborne forces based in Fort Campbell, Ky., had saved from his days in service. "I just grew up with this message of service in our family and very patriotic values," he says. "From a very young age, I knew I wanted to serve."
By age 15, Redman had his heart set on the Navy. At 19, he began on a path of five deployments that would take him around the world, including Colombia, Peru, Afghanistan and, ultimately, Iraq. It was there, in September 2007 in the middle of the Iraq War, that Redman and his unit were ambushed while chasing a high-level target. After taking multiple shots to his helmet, elbow and face, he was lucky to be alive. Redman's rehabilitation required 37 surgeries over the course of four years. The devastating injuries effectively ended his combat career. "I had to learn a different way forward, a different way to give back," he says. "I said, 'I'm gonna lift up people around me and I'm gonna continue to lead even if it's from this hospital bed.' "
Which is exactly where Redman's second act began. While recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Redman grew frustrated by the waves of people who came into his room expressing sorrow and sympathy. He was sick of the pity and asked his wife to buy the brightest color paper she could find — an orange poster. On it, Redman wrote:
"Attention to all who enter here. If you are coming into this room with sorrow or to feel sorry for my wounds, go elsewhere. The wounds I received I got in a job I love, doing it for people I love, supporting the freedom of a country I deeply love. I am incredibly tough and will make a full recovery. What is full? That is the absolute utmost physically my body has the ability to recover. Then I will push that about 20 percent further through sheer mental tenacity. This room you are about to enter is a room of fun, optimism, and intense rapid regrowth. If you are not prepared for that, go elsewhere."
His words were quickly embraced by fellow recovering veterans and went viral online. Even today, nearly seven years later, it remains a mantra for wounded warriors in recovery. Memories of his long and painful rehabilitation inform every aspect of Redman's vision for Wounded Wear. In addition to donating clothing kits, his organization hosts quarterly "Jumps for a Purpose," skydiving sessions for wounded vets and their families. With food vendors, musicians and other entertainers, the events are designed to convey a festive atmosphere, offering vets a chance to interact with fellow servicemen. But they are also metaphorical dives — opportunities for wounded warriors to let go of the obstacles holding them back. "It's not really about jumping — it's an extreme thing to throw yourself out of a perfectly good airplane," Redman says. "It's about moving forward, conquering that fear and taking that step back into life."
Josh Hoffman, a single amputee Marine whose left leg was lost during an explosion in South Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in 2011, says Redman was a savior during his recovery at the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth in Virginia. The hospital didn't have the resources to provide wounded warriors with modified clothing during their surgeries, but Hoffman had heard about Wounded Wear through friends at Bethesda, and asked Redman for help. "For months, I'd only been wearing shorts because my pants didn't have zippers," Hoffman says. "Jay modified my service outfits, jeans and all my pants — it was an incredible resource." Hoffman, who has gone through more than 20 surgeries during his recovery, has gone on to volunteer with Wounded Wear, helping the organization pass out clothing kits at their various wounded warrior events, which he says has become a huge inspiration to him. "They've given me another sense of purpose to inspire others," he says. "Jay's shown me that even if you can't do what you were doing before, you can always do something to help other vets. And I should say he's the most humble person I've met, which has helped me strive to become a better person, day to day, which can be very difficult when I'm still working through things myself."
Redman's work is getting noticed elsewhere, too. Matt Reames, who with his wife co-founded the annual Never Quit Never Forget Gala to raise money for various organizations serving the country's armed forces, first heard about Redman's story from a friend who was also a former SEAL. Reames invited Redman to speak at their inaugural gala in 2011, and says Redman's inspiring story left jaws on the floor at the event. But it was behind the scenes where Reames really saw the impact of Wounded Wear's efforts. At a pre-gala gathering, Reames noticed Redman give a kit to a fellow vet named Chance Vaughn, who'd lost the majority of the left side of his head in combat. "The look on Chance's face was incredible — he was stunned to see someone give him something, that someone cared about what he did," Reames says. Nearly three years later, Reames says Vaughn still wears his Wounded Wear gear every day. "Jay shows wounded warriors that people do remember, that they do care about what they do, and that's absolutely needed because war is not this fly-by-night thing. Even when a war ends, you're going to have soldiers missing limbs, needing help."
Having helped veterans get their pride back, Redman says his next focus is to bring other forms of long-term change into their lives. He's written a book, "The Trident: The Forging and Reforging of a Navy SEAL Leader," about his experiences, with hopes that it will inspire others, both military members and civilians, to overcome the difficulties in their lives. And he wants to partner with other organizations to help veterans achieve their goals, be it going to law school or finding permanent housing. "We want to build a vast database and network with these other great organizations so that we can see them succeed, see them achieve their American Dream," Redman says. "The U.S. government can't do it right now. Compromise is not even a word they're willing to entertain…so it's up to us as citizens and we need to work together to do it."
And with the country's official drawdown from Afghanistan coming soon, Redman says the importance of that work is more urgent than ever. "The awareness of the wars is already waning. Big battles, guys that are lost — they don't really make the news anymore," he says. "Iraq ended, but my scars didn't go away. Wounded warriors carry those scars for life, so it's more important than ever that we continue to raise awareness, to make sure our veterans are taken care of."
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This article originally appeared at NationSwell Copyright 2015. Follow NationSwell on Twitter.