'It Happened on the Way to War': An Inspiring Story

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If you're depressed by the devastating takedowns of Greg "Three Cups" Mortenson's versions of his exploits and philanthropy in Afghanistan, two days ago by the Los Angeles Times and tonight on 60 Minutes, here's something to boost your outlook. Rye Barcott's It Happened on the Way to War: A Marine's Path to Peace, a verified story unlike Mortenson's, is in its own way at least as inspiring as what we had understood Mortenson's to be.

The video below gives you the basic flavor, with much more info at the site of his charity, Carolina for Kibera. Gist of the story: ten years ago Barcott, then an undergraduate at UNC - Chapel Hill, went to Nairobi on a project as part of his study of Africa and Swahili. He was in the city's huge slum, Kibera, and formed a close connection with people there -- especially a nurse and a community-organizer. They conceived a plan of creating a community-development organization to promote schooling, sports, medical care, and general uplift for children and families in Kibera. On return to North Carolina Barcott began raising money for this Carolina for Kibera project.

But Barcott, whose father had been a combat Marine in Vietnam, had wanted to "serve his country" and had gone to UNC on a Naval ROTC scholarship. His last year in college was a mix of Kenya-related and ROTC activities, and after graduation in 2001 his active service as a Marine began. He was in the Basic School at Quantico during the 9/11 attacks, and over the next five years he served in Bosnia, the Horn of Africa, and finally Iraq. He left as a captain in 2006, having been an ABC News "Person of the Week" that year. He went back for MBA and MPA degrees and now works in North Carolina for Duke Energy company -- by coincidence the same one I mentioned in my story on clean-coal projects in China -- directing sustainability projects.

It Happened on the Way to War from Center for Global Initiatives on Vimeo.

There is more at the site and of course in the book -- which is detailed, vivid, earnest, and remarkable in rendering with equal intensity his interactions with poor children in Nairobi and his experiences at OCS or on patrol in Fallujah. I was struck by its epigraph, which is also the slogan of Carolina for Kibera: "Talent is universal; opportunity is not." That is one of the clearest lessons of my own experience around the world over the years. It is heartening, in the current political mood, that a young, talented, ambitious American would choose that as the theme he wanted to stress.

It is an interesting book, which has just been published, and an encouraging story. Check it out.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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