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

By James Fallows

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/04/it-happened-on-the-way-to-war-an-inspiring-story/237451/