By Contributing Editor Blair Drake
When Lt. Cmdr. E.A. “Rex” King III, USN (Ret), was 11 years old, he built his first ham radio. He had recently been taught Morse code while in the Boy Scouts and learned about amateur radio from some friends. He quickly became hooked.
“[My radios] became my magic boxes,” he said. “I would sit there and talk and learn geography and maps, latitude and longitude. I communicated with people all over the world who would tell me about their cultures, languages, governments.”
In 1958, King got his amateur radio operator license.
In 1965, he joined the Navy — not surprising given that the Texas native comes from a family of servicemembers. Both his parents served in World War II. His mother was a Navy petty officer 3rd class who flew weather missions over the Pacific. His father served in the Army with the 12th Armored Division. King’s grandfather was a Doughboy in World War I.
But it was King’s hobby for radio that made an impact on his early days in the Navy.
“I had this immense leg up when I joined the military knowing Morse code and radio,” he said.
He served as a radioman in Vietnam, aboard both destroyers and river boats. During this time, King said he honed his radio-operator skills.
Using his government-issued Collins KWM2, he made “hundreds, if not thousands, of phone patches," allowing servicemembers in Vietnam to talk to their families back home. “I would call up amateur radio operators stateside, and they would connect to the families so those in Vietnam could talk to them,” he explained.
When he returned home from Vietnam, King admitted he struggled, like many of his fellow veterans from that war.
“I had some serious issues when I came back home,” he said. “I had total disillusionment from what I thought returning home would be. I kind of withdrew.”
Horses and therapy helped him get through that dark time, and the Navy mustang went on to serve for a total of 35 years.
When he reflects on his military service, he feels good about how he helped his fellow servicemembers in Vietnam.
“I think being able to help my brothers and sisters make those phone patches home greatly improved morale over there,” he said. “Even back then, I wanted to pay it forward.”
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That desire to help others became King’s focus after he retired from the Navy in 2020.
He serves on the Founders Advisory Board of Woody Williams Foundation, is an ambassador for the Freedom Mobility Foundation, and is a member of countless other community and veterans’ organizations, including the North DFW Chapter of MOAA.
He and his wife, Donna Snow King, who also has her amateur radio license, mentor teens participating in a local rodeo program, the North Texas Rodeo Foundation.
“We try to teach them good citizenship — physical, mental, and moral standards,” King said. They also help guide them on their path forward, teaching them skills that might give them a leg up in the future endeavors, including helping many get their amateur radio licenses, something that King said could help them not only in college and careers but also in the military, as he experienced.
“We have young people coming up that are not meeting the requirement necessary to serve, he said. “And if we don’t address that when they’re younger, then we won’t get the leadership we need in the future. My work is to help these young people to meet these standards and be leaders.”
Blair Drake is a contributing editor for MOAA and lives in Souderton, Pa. She previously served on the editorial team of Military Officer magazine for nine years.