A Devil Dog Finds His Best Angels

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Courtesy Bloomsbury USA

After several interruptions, I’ve finally finished the best book to land on my desk this year: “It Happened On The Way To War,” by Rye Barcott, a former Marine who has devoted his life to bringing development to one of the world’s worst slums. The book (published by Bloomsbury) chronicles the creation of Carolina for Kibera (CFK), a unique nongovernmental organization that is helping the denizens of Kibera to bring development to their home, the giant slum-city in Nairobi.

Barcott first went to Kibera as a 20-year-old who had decided to join the U.S. Marines: he thought it would be a good way to get first-hand experience of ethnic conflict, something he expected to encounter in uniform. Instead, he found himself drawn into a friendship with several residents, including a nurse and a community organizer: together, they set up Carolina for Kibera.

Barcott did join the Marines, and served hard tours in Iraq, as well as in Bosnia and East Africa. But Kibera was never far from his mind. After Iraq, he went to Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, to study social entrepreneurship. His work in Kibera has won him and his organization all kinds of awards and commendations, including recognition from TIME as a “Hero of Global Health” in 2005.

It Happened On The Way To War is a heart-warming tale, told with both passion and candor. I think it should be required reading for two communities that are often hostile to each other: the NGO world and soldiers. Too often, NGO types see soldiers as thoughtless killers, and soldiers see the NGO community as pie-in-the-sky dreamers.

For me, Barcott’s story is proof of a pet theory of mine: that former soldiers can make superb social workers. As we’ve seen in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, modern warfare imposes a great deal of development responsibility on the military. Soldiers routinely build schools, dispense medicines, provide drinking water, and perform many other tasks that would have been done by NGOs if the war zones were safe enough for them to operate. Then there are the traditional skills that are imparted to soldiers: discipline, a fine understanding of logistics, the ability to perform in crises, and function in difficult terrains.

Former soldiers also come front-loaded with passion and commitment, essential qualities for any kind of social work. And like Barcott, many modern soldiers have a great deal of experience in countries and communities that most need help from NGOs.

For all those reasons, social work is a great career option for former soldiers. It allows them to put their war-won expertise and experience to great use. And in Barcott’s telling, CFK is something like a psychic balm for the horrors of war.

If you’re looking for a Memorial Day present for a friend who’s a soldier (or a social worker), I highly recommend It Happened On the Way To War. Read it yourself first, and you’ll come away with a greater appreciation for what your friend does.