There won’t be any speeches, awards, or special recognition for veteran David Baldwin on November 11. Despite a 17-year career in the Armed Forces – four in the Army and 13 in the Air Force, including sending classified communications satellites into space at Cape Canaveral and installing classified communication systems on Air Force bases in the Middle East during Desert Shield and Desert Storm — Veteran’s Day will be like any other for the active septuagenarian living in rural Alabama.
There will be lots of phone calls from his flock — he’s pastor of the 132-year-old Mt. Zion Baptist Church — and many from his business associates and family.
Flags fly on the light poles in downtown Camden (population 2,200) and flowers bloom at the tiny veteran’s park across the street from True Value hardware store. A few phone calls and a look at the local weekly newspaper doesn’t show any special services Thursday, but Baldwin could get a discount if he goes to the zoo in Montgomery or a free sandwich at Zaxby’s in Selma.
Like most veterans, Baldwin is quietly going about his life, despite his remarkable military service that took him around the world on top-secret assignments, some of which he still cannot talk about today. He also will hobble into the Comprehensive Wound Center in Birmingham Thursday, as doctors continue to treat the wound on his foot caused by the only thing that has slowed him down in 70 years — a rusty nail, something even a bite from a brown recluse spider couldn’t do during his fishing trip two years ago.
Tin Roof Beginnings
Baldwin was born in 1951 in a tin-roofed shack in Pebble Hill, Alabama, to a dirt-poor, hardworking family, the second of 10 children. His father worked long hours at a lumber mill and spent Sundays circuit preaching at churches in Pine Level, Macedonia, Arkadelphia, and Boiling Springs.
Rev. L.V. Baldwin expected his sons to work hard too. In fact, his father wouldn’t let him leave high school and go to college at age 15 because he “needed him to pick beans, cotton, and black-eyed peas.” But his humble beginnings, and the often terrorizing life for blacks in the segregated South, didn’t limit Baldwin’s extraordinary life, which included a stint on the faculty of the National Cryptologic School run by the National Security Agency. (His oldest brother, Lewis, is professor emeritus at Vanderbilt University.)
Baldwin entered Talledega College in April 1968, at the age of 16, just days after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Baldwin and his brother had heard King speak in Camden in 1965 in support of civil rights marchers. They were deeply moved by his words: “You are somebody. You matter to the world.” During summers, Baldwin worked at an inner-city church in Atlanta and on campaigns for Andrew Young.
Baldwin attended Alabama’s oldest historically black college on a full scholarship and graduated in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in math and physics. He was accepted to Dartmouth Medical School and wanted to become a neurosurgeon, but discovered he didn’t have the science background he needed.
After graduate studies in science at several prominent universities, he married and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1975, where he was trained as a combat medic. His overseas posting first was to the Battalion Medical Aid Station in Stuttgart, Germany. Later, he trained as a drug and alcohol abuse counselor and served at the Fifth U.S. Army Hospital, Bad Cannstatt, Germany.
Hurdles to Becoming an Officer
When Baldwin returned stateside in 1979, he asked about his application to Officer Training School to become a commissioned officer, a fairly common assignment for college graduates. After searching, they found his application, with all the necessary signatures, hidden in a desk drawer of his supervisor, who was on leave, with a coffee mug stain covering his photograph.
He immediately switched his enlistment to the U.S. Air Force, doubled his salary, and was enrolled in Officer Training School, where he was commissioned as a second lieutenant, eventually becoming a major.
He switched fields from medicine to communications, becoming a specialist in classified communications systems installed at bases throughout the Pacific, including Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia. He was serving in the Middle East during Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
Later, he received a master of business administration-aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and worked alongside faculty at Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developing systems for satellites. He was sent to Cape Canaveral to watch one of the satellite launches. He helped prepare top secret “packages” that went into war zones and were placed on airplanes flown by the secretary of defense.
“I loved serving in the military; you learn so much, it was like a university in itself,” Baldwin told me.
Baldwin retired from the military in 1996 when his wife Linda got sick, and took math and science teaching positions at high schools and middle schools in her hometown of Greenville, North Carolina, and in his hometown of Camden. He wrote two math picture books for young students that underscore his interest in preparing young minds for higher-level math.
Called to Minister
In 2008, while visiting his dying mother, Baldwin told her he felt called then to ministry. A woman of few words, she squeezed his hand, and he knew she was grateful he was following in the footsteps of his father, grandfather, and older brother.
At the urging of his siblings, Baldwin returned “home” to rural Wilcox County permanently in 2018, after his wife died. Four of the 10 Baldwin siblings live in the area. He lives in Camden, the county seat, and works on business ventures with family in Gee’s Bend and pastoring the flock at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in nearby Coy.
Not one to slow down, Baldwin was also tutoring at an afterschool program in the community of Vredenburgh, until a rusty nail took him out this summer. He was at his church inspecting some repairs when he stepped on it.
Baldwin preached that day despite the pain, and finally hobbled into the local medical center the next day. Loaded up with antibiotics and a tetanus shot, he thought he was on his way to recovery. He was not.
Another two medical interventions, including lancing the wound, failed. The bone was infected and he had to have surgery on his right foot at Grandview Hospital in Birmingham, in September, where he was hospitalized for 10 days. They also discovered he had diabetes, which had contributed to the festering wound.
Although he didn’t think he’d lose his foot, he said there were times it “looked pretty grim.”
Baldwin still keeps an eye on the renovation of the historic church, and continues to preach while they meet temporarily at another Baptist church.
On the ground next to the church building is a cement slab with plumbing already installed that will be the home of the Mt. Zion Family Resource Center. Pastor Baldwin envisions a community gathering place where people can come together for hot meals, tutoring, prayer, counseling, and learning from each other, one generation to the next, in a community marked by generational poverty.
It’s a big task — and expense — for a small congregation to take on with a pastor in his 70s. But Pastor Baldwin has done the math. And he figures with the Lord, it’s possible: “When the Lord gives you something to do, you just have to do it, regardless of your age.”