WHEN A SOLDIER BECOMES A WRITER
There's something happening here/ What it is ain't exactly clear/ There's a man with a gun over there /Telling me I got to beware
Lyrics by Stephen Stills, "For What It's Worth"
Performed by Buffalo Springfield, it was recorded on December 5, 1966, released as a single on Atco Records
It's never a good idea, or even respectful, to ask a former soldier if he thinks a war has been worthwhile, or all for nothing, but after reading Robert Séamus Macpherson's gripping book, Stewards of Humanity; Lighting the Darkness in Humanitarian Crisis, I decided to take the chance. He hadn't been an ordinary soldier, he'd been a Colonel in the United States Marines for thirty years, and segued to humanitarian work with the agency CARE. Even more unusual, he'd become a writer, and a good one. So I asked about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, our most recent 20-year war. Colonel Macpherson had started his military career in Vietnam, and after a very bad day, he'd ended up in the hospital for a year. Had it been worth it? His own injuries, all those lives damaged and lost, comrades and civilians? We were on a Zoom call so I wasn't sure if he threw up his hands, shrugged his shoulders, or just quoted casualty and death statistics. Maybe both. Thousands, I thought I heard him say. And where are we now? Just this past weekend, the Taliban has taken three regions in that beleaguered country and families with means are scrambling to get out. It's reminiscent of the airlift out of Saigon when the People's Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong entered the city on April 30 1975. The Fall of Saigon, as it became known, led to the reunification of the country. Not to detour too much here, but the future of Afghanistan, with its fundamentalist warlords, does not bode well for women, or future tourism.
I was talking with Bob, his wife Veronica, and Bob's service dog, Blue, while they were on vacation in Maine. At my request, Bob introduced me formally to Blue, trained by Southeastern Guide Dogs . And, yes, I was talking to this adorable 90-pound white Labrador, who is by Bob's side 24-7, an "empath," the trainers call him.
Though it is not easy to read at times, Stewards of Humanity is both a reminder and a warning. All those quagmires: Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Rwanda. Refugees. Genocide. Death everywhere. Danger constantly. Is it any wonder that soldiers and humanitarian workers return from the field with PTSD, and worse? It took a while for Bob to acknowledge his struggle, but he faced it, as he has all the other challenges in his life.
Empathy seems to expand inside the Zoom room as we talk, filling the virtual spaces with healthy, focused energy. Bob has read my blog and commented on my obsession with justice, like his own. It pleases me that he's noticed, though I am supposed to be interviewing him, and now the tables are turned, a bit disconcerting. Never mind, we have a lot in common, a lot to talk about.
Veronica is by Bob's side, also. They met in Atlanta at the CARE headquarters, second marriage for him, first for her. She's now a clinical social worker with a specialty in oncology, and helps Bob with his website and social media. Two children from Bob's first marriage are doing well: his daughter is a lawyer, his son a tattoo artist in Hawaii. "I'm proud of them both," Bob says. He has grandchildren now,too.
And then there's the writing, which all writers, including yours truly, know full well is therapeutic, albeit it is not therapy per se.
"Tell me about your writing process," I asked in an email exchange after our interview.
"My absolutely best writing day is to get up, take Blue for a long morning walk with Veronica, come home and have nothing in front of me for the morning except my writing. After three or four hours, I'm expended. Then, I go to the gym, come home, feed Blue and spend the evening with Veronica. Those days are perfection."
"The book is very detailed. Did you keep notes or a journal all those years?"
"I did not keep notebooks. I believe the events I write about affected me deeply. I found that once I started writing about them, all the facts seemed to unfold like a movie. Every name, event and nuance seemed to appear in front of me—just when I needed it."
As I am always telling my students to keep a journal, I was disappointed. How else to retrieve stories when memory is usually so elusive? But for Bob, they've been etched into his brain, a permanent record to carry forward into his work.
After such an accomplishment—the book took five years to complete—I wondered if he would continue. I needn't have worried. He's already at work on a second—about his relationship with Blue.
To pre-order Stewards of Humanity, go to Robert Macpherson's website: