By Michelle Cassell
He exudes an aura of kindness when he enters the room. Russell Edmister, or “Rusty” as he is known to his friends, feels as welcome as a cold glass of sweet tea on a hot day as he takes a seat at the kitchen table. “Everyone calls me Rusty except the drill sergeant I had in the army at Fort Dix. And my mother, when she was angry at me, that’s the only time proper first names come up.”
This Carolina-born and bred septuagenarian’s handshake is firm and he seldom loses his casual smile. He talks with a slight southern drawl as he tells you about his life. You can’t help but listen as he weaves his story, instantly inviting you in. He’s a man with a mission.
After working for IBM for almost 40 years, a chance encounter at a gym changed Rusty’s life. “A man was there with a stack of DVDs, giving them out to anyone who wanted to take one. When I asked him what was on it he said, ‘I was in the United States Navy during World War II, and I was on an LCT that’s landing craft tanks. We made six trips to the beach on D-Day, delivering Sherman tanks to the beach.’ Well, immediately, my whole perspective changed,” said Rusty. Consequently, he set off on a career of working for the state archives, recording and making DVDs of North Carolina veterans’ military histories.
Since leaving the North Carolina state archives work, Rusty has collected North Carolina veterans’ oral histories independently for the past ten years. It is proper to recognize him and his work this week as we pause to celebrate Veterans Day.
A Vietnam veteran himself, he does not charge a fee for his services. Rusty is doing this out of respect for their contribution. “People have offered me money; I won’t take it,” he said.
A veteran is described by the Department of Veterans Affairs, as someone who has served in the active military, naval or air service and was discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable. You do not have to have seen combat to be considered a veteran. “A veteran to me is anyone who served in our military. Any branch, any time, and any place – regular military, national guard or reserves.
“I feel my project is the least I can do for my fellow veterans. And “fellow” is non-gender or race specific,” said Rusty.
“I spend a lot of my time doing video oral histories, meaning I sit down with a veteran with a camera between us and we just have a conversation, veteran to veteran.
“I do that for one and only one reason. I genuinely believe that most veterans rarely ever spend any time telling their loved ones and friends about that time in their lives when they were in the military. The last person I interviewed, who lives within five miles of where we’re sitting, was my 565th conversation,” said Rusty.
By word of mouth he finds veterans for interviews. Rusty’s best advocates are family members, because they want to know their loved ones’ military history. He attributes his success in getting veterans to open up to him is that he can relate and understand as one veteran to another. Particularly in “service speak” and the acronyms of the service.
“I do the videos for one reason. I want these people, especially great-grandchildren and grandchildren, not just to read but to hear and see their loved one,” said Rusty. He said that a veteran will cry when sharing a memory that touches them deeply. “You can hear that on audio, but it communicates a more complete picture when you see it.”
Rusty said that women are underrepresented in his interviews. “I interviewed a retired lieutenant general who was an officer in the Air Force. She told me that there were 80,000 female veterans living in North Carolina. Still, according to a collection of Women in the Military that compiles histories in Greensboro, very few of them are ever interviewed.”
One of the most interesting interviews he recounted was with a woman Marine who was 102 when he talked to her. “She was proud to be a Marine.”
One WW II veteran told at the time of his enlistment he’d been a farmer all of his life and wanted nothing better than to go to sea. The Navy had other plans for him. After learning about his farming experience they gave him a choice to do farming on Tinian Island to feed the troops or board an LST or LCT [landing crafts] that offered slim chances for survival. So he chose the farming, but was wounded twice by Japanese snipers on the island.
Another interviewee was a Black U.S. Army battalion commander, which means he had up to 1000 people reporting to him. He was assigned to take his entire battalion to Greenland to search for the bodies of 254 “Screaming Eagles” [which the 101st is called]. It had crashed during takeoff, killing everyone aboard.
The commander and his battalion knew the victims because they had all been stationed at Fort Campbell. Although they were in different units, they socialized, played ball against each other, and went out to drink together, and yet they had to go out and pick up what remained of their comrades. They were not going to leave them; they were bringing them home.
Most of his interviews are about two hours or less. It depends if the man or woman veteran made a career out of their service. In that case it could be as long as 15 hours. Most of his interviews are limited to North Carolina because of distance, although friendships have taken him to Virginia and South Carolina.
Interestingly, it often takes many years for a veteran to open up about his service, particularly combat.
“That’s why the American Legion and VFW are having terrible times getting new members. Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, he says, don’t share the same camaraderie as the older vets from WWII, Korea and Vietnam. “They [the younger vets] aren’t ready to talk yet. The camaraderie is different.”
Rusty said that the younger vets think that Vietnam, and what few WWII and Korean vets that are left, wouldn’t understand what they [the younger vets] have been through. “I want to tell them, war is war is war. The weapons may differ, but the horror is still the same.”
Russell (Rusty) Edmister is interested in helping people record their friend or loved one’s military history or a person’s life story if they are over 95. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Michelle Cassell is a seasoned reporter who has covered everything from crime to hurricanes and local politics to human interest over the course of 35 years. As managing editor, she hopes to encourage writers of a wide range of backgrounds and interests in TLR’s coverage of Southern Orange County news.