5280 High School is a project-based learning school in Denver; during project-based learning, students do the real-world work of professionals. In the case of “Sharing Their Stories,” it was the work of journalists. For this project, students in Cody Miller’s ninth-grade humanities class interviewed and photographed veterans to capture their experiences and share them for Memorial Day. On May 2, they spoke with Marine John Douglas Kermmoade, who served in the Vietnam War. Kermmoade's son, Jake, attends 5280.
Kermmoade was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, on February 6, 1955. When he was sixteen, he quit school to start working as a trash man and enlisted in the Marine Corps when he was eighteen, reasoning that they had better training. He later married. Students Esmeralda Silerio, Daisy Ortiz, Zaida Venegas, Jake Kermmoade and Triton Busick conducted the following interview with Kermmoade at 5280:
5280 High School: Growing up, did you want to be in the military?
John Kermmoade: I had plans on it when I was younger....and my dad was in the Marines. My dad went in when he was eighteen and did four years in the Marine Corps. He got out, did four years in the Army, and did thirty in the Air Force.
Do you feel pressure to join because of your dad?
Nope — I was eighteen, and when you turn eighteen, you gotta register for the draft. I registered, went down to the recruitment office, did some testing down there and moved on to my training camp.
What was your reason for going into the military?
I was in it for work at the time. Went down to test, passed it, went on in. I went to Pearson, North Carolina, to do some training. Left there, then went down into Mississippi.
Could you choose the branch in which you wanted to serve?
Yes. But, y’know, if you got drafted, you didn't get a choice.
Why did you choose the Marine Corps?
They had more of a training program than the rest of them.
Do you have any interesting stories?
I was in the Military Police. To start with, I had my own dog. His name was Rock. He was a full-blood German Shepard, pure white. We had a guy who used to come in, a sergeant with a dummy outfit on that was thick so the dog didn’t bite him. He would act like he was gonna stab somebody, and the dog would attack.
What were your most memorable experiences during your service?
Flying. It was all right until they started shooting from the bottom of the plane. One of the guys, the third guy up on the right side, he got shot through the plane. It was a pretty nice shot. They got seats in there, so you sit on the seat, and when you sit on the seat, they shoot right up through the plane. Caught him right in the tail end!
Did things change for you after your service?
Well, they teach about discipline. Y’know, how to respect your parents, how to treat other people that are around you. They also keep you on alert; you look all around when you’re walking, driving, whatever, and you just see a lot of crazy things going on.
Why do you think some veterans end up experiencing homelessness?
They’re so used to living out in the fields, because over in Nam, they don't fit you in....you have to sleep on the ground. You’ve got a backpack to sleep on, a rolled-up blanket or whatever, and that's what you’re supposed to lay on and cover up with. But then, when the people come back into the states, the veteran people don't give them the right kind of care. Because their counselors are like, well, we can do this for you, we can do that for you, but until they go do it, there’s nothing there for you.
[Jake]: I believe that after your service, you were homeless for a little bit.
For a little bit I was. That's when I was going through flashbacks.
What were your flashbacks like?
Seeing babies getting blown up, and you see the bodies. Sometimes I even helped load up the bodies onto the planes. One day, I got the living daylights scared out of me because when I opened it up, it was like...maggots. Everywhere. All over the body bag. They didn’t take care of the guy when he first got there. Didn't take care of him from being shot. In the long run? That's why I cannot eat rice today.
It's hard to do, because when you’re there, you got all this going on in your mind. When you’re sitting there trying to eat, you start thinking about those things. You don't like to have it because of those nasty-looking bugs. Then you think of the maggots being in the rice. Not to stop all you from eating rice, but, yeah.
Did you ever get shot while being in the military?
Once I did, by a small handgun. They shot me right in the ankle area, maybe up a little higher.
How does that affect how you live your life?
I just, y’know, do what I gotta do. Doesn’t largely affect my health in any way. Every once in a while, when it's ice-cold out, you can feel it in your body. Fourth of July is another story.
I really don't care about July 4. I prefer to stay home, out of the way of everything. Some of the fireworks make a loud whistle, which reminded me of the bombs they would drop in Vietnam. It can cause flashbacks, it can… change your lifestyle real quick. I’d say they’re pretty interesting to watch, because that's another sign of freedom.
What do you define as freedom?
Well, it gives us the right to fly the flag, gives us the joy of letting all the kids, and other people, watch them.
Do you think you have enough freedom?
We have a lot of freedom. You gotta make life go as life comes.
Did you take advantage of the benefits you could get from being in the military?
There are benefits that people can get, but they don't tell you everything. They try to tell you, “We’ll take care of you when you get back,” but that’s a lie. Ninety-nine percent of the veterans are on the street today.
Why do you think they don't follow up on taking care of you when you get back?
They're supposed to make sure you got a place to live and help you get through hard times, and they don’t. There's all these veterans on the street right now, and that's because they come back and have no place to live. There's all these hotels down on Colfax, and they’re tearing them down, all that stuff. They could make, y’know, a home out of that.
Do you have any advice or anything you would want us to know?
Well, you guys are getting old enough to go into the service, and they’re supposed to tell you before you go in, sometimes they don't, but they always try to tell you when you come back you can get a house that you can buy on a GI loan. That you’ll have a place to come back to, a place to live. They got a hospital, they’re supposed to give you a VA pension, which a lot of times guys don’t get. A guy coming back from Iraq, y’know, they’re messed up more than some of us guys were. There's young guys and girls that go into the service, just got done playing dollies and Jim's in the back yard, and they don't help them when they come back.
Watch for other interviews by the students of 5280 High School with local veterans over Memorial Day weekend.