Where I research and write

“Bobby, I’ll live through your eyes,” my mother, Ruth, said, holding my hand shortly before she had a stroke in the spring of 1989. She passed away that November, but those words haunted me long afterward. I was always drawn to the edgy side of life, and through it all, my mother struggled to surround me with love and safety. I lived life as a juvenile delinquent, then as a soldier, then as a cop. I raised my family and then, in 1997, completed a PhD in criminology.

After graduation, my methodology professor, Janet Hankin, asked, “So what do you plan to do now, Doctor?”

“I’d like to write,” I said.

“Write? You’re not going to teach?”

“No. There are things I need to write.”

She looked at me for a moment as if I were talking gibberish. Then she blandly replied, “Sounds exciting,” and walked away.

The scholastic corner of my research center

Professor Hankin was a terrific instructor, as were my committee members, Leon Warshay (theoretical sociology), Thomas Kelly (criminology), Leon Wilson (statistics), and Matthew Seeger (communications). I admired each professor and appreciated how they challenged my ideas and fostered critical thinking. But after spending twenty-eight years in college classrooms, complying with schedules, and jumping through one hoop after another, I was done. My three kids were in school, and I needed to move ahead—not in academia but writing about my passions: military history, firearms, physics, and criminal and police behavior. Some of the subject matter I had experienced firsthand. And I had put so much work into my dissertation, “The Impact of Perceived Alienation on a Police Officer’s Sense of Mastery and Subsequent Motivation for Proactive Enforcement,” that Dr. Kelly and I got it published in the scientific journal Policing. I then wrote an abbreviated version for the Police Chief magazine. After that, I was free to roll.

Cold War map and my Vietnam rucksack

I started by heeding the words of my former team leader and mentor, Sergeant Douglas Parkinson, who implored me, “Bob, get the story out and let people know what happened in Vietnam, or the men we lost will just disappear.” I wrote an article for Vietnam magazine titled “Perspectives,” challenging the conventional wisdom that Vietnam was a “bad” war, unlike the “good” Second World War.

After that, I wrote Vietnam magazine’s cover story “No Peace in the Valley,” detailing one of the most daring airmobile operations of the Vietnam War. Then I wrote about military small arms, terrorism, and social alienation. After that, I spent ten years writing my memoir, LURPS: A Ranger’s Diary of Tet, Khe Sanh, A Shau, and Quang Tri, and its revised edition. Both were nominated for the Army Historical Foundation’s Distinguished Writing Award, in 2006 and 2009.

And with the help of two very talented friends, I was introduced to Web publishing and social media. John Baugh, Professor of Computer Science, helped create my first Web site, and a couple of years later, U.S. Army Ranger SFC Kelly Hyde took it to a whole other level by revamping the site and opening my eyes to the world of blogging. Unlike books or professional journals, blogs provide an outlet where I can easily bounce from one topic to another. I can dive deeply into a subject, or I can dash off two brief paragraphs to satisfy a whim.

The best part about writing is, I can do it at my own pace, whenever I want. And whenever I want is always in the still of the night, when my world is quiet—no lawnmowers or barking dogs, only Pandora radio providing the sound track on my journey through time. If Pandora fails to fit the moment, I have a long playlist to tap into, and I also dig up specific music on the Web to evoke just the mood and emotional response I need to bring up the words. One of my favorite songs is “Sanvean,” by Lisa Gerrard—in her rich, pleading voice, I hear my mother’s heartfelt reflections on life.

On my computer, I have these words from George Orwell: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” The second sentence should be sacred to every writer, because the honor of people who may not be able to speak for themselves lies in the writer’s hands.

When I write blogs, I start with my library of books, letters, and diaries and the Internet. If I’m lucky, I hung on to the needed newspaper articles, police reports, photos, and maps. I love digging up fragments of history and tying more and more pieces together until I have a real-life story.

I usually work on several projects at once, letting some sit for months until that key missing detail pops into my mind. This often happens late at night, while nodding off or recalling a dream. Half awake, I fumble for pen and pad and scribble a note before the thought vanishes.

Wednesday, October 2, 1968, home from Vietnam. My mom showing the documents and letters she saved

My plan, once I have a hundred blogs or so, is to cobble them together into a book. It will be a tribute to my mother, who knew the importance of keeping an archive. When I returned from Vietnam, she proudly showed me a thick file with every letter, award, and document I ever sent home. Mom was a secretary in a Canadian woolen plant in World War II, and later she handled all the finances and record keeping in our house. Like many women in our neighborhood, she never learned to drive, but she had a great memory and she believed in accurate records.

When I became a cop at the Wayne County Jail in Detroit, my mother’s concern grew. Now I was battling a war in my own community. She told me I should keep a diary because I was witnessing a little slice of history in the making. She was extraordinarily proud that in five short years, I had moved from one side of the law to the other. Detroit was going down the tubes, and with me right in the middle of it every day, she got an inside view of what was happening. It was as if my being a cop could help her make sense of it all. She used to joke, “Bobby, you get to see all the celebrities.” We had White Panthers (radical Maoists), Black Panthers, local thugs from the neighborhood, and Mafiosi from across the county. I think my mother wanted me to remember what I was seeing. It was her nature. She would often ask me what caused different wars and what made people do certain things. Her father was Egyptian, her mother Lebanese. They had passed away in Canada, and I think she was just acutely aware how family history—and history itself—fades with the memories of those who witnessed it. I think she also thought that writing it all down would help me deal with the terrible things I was seeing daily.

Tuesday, July 14, 1970, with politicians at the Wayne County Jail

We had 1,100 prisoners, and the jail was overcrowded with three men to each two-man cell. The prisoners had come in through all the various channels of law enforcement, from the feds to Detroit PD, and they ranged from “victimless” criminals—drug users and prostitutes—to child molesters and cop killers. One prisoner on my 120-man ward was, Danny Lee Atnip, a kid from my neighborhood who was raised by a brutal father. When Danny returned from Vietnam, he killed his wife. In jail, he pleaded with me, saying, “Bob! Bob! You know what it’s like! It was Vietnam! I had a nightmare! You gotta believe me! It wasn’t my fault!”

There wasn’t much I could do but listen, which I did, but I didn’t believe him. He had been rear echelon at Cam Ranh Bay, a huge Army, Air Force, and Navy base. I was there when I first arrived in Vietnam, and it was like a tropical resort—I’d be surprised if Danny ever saw the enemy. And yet, he claimed that he woke up, saw his wife’s long black hair, and thought she was a Vietcong, so he strangled her. A month later, Danny was found guilty of murder, and he hanged himself. He was my age, 21. I had to wonder, if Danny had been raised by a caring, loving mother like mine instead of a brutish dad, might his life have turned out differently?

Christmas 1988. Last photo of mom

I feel my mother’s wise, benevolent guidance every day, permeating my thoughts and perceptions, but I feel it most when I write. And thanks to my mother, I have every letter I sent home from 1965 to 1968, and I have diaries from 1972 to yesterday. My diaries are brutally honest. Whatever thoughts or experiences I had that day are preserved as if in amber. Often, I find myself talking to the young man writing in those diaries, trying to give him some much-needed advice. But since I can’t, I hope my research digs up a few nuggets of history, and maybe some useful observations on the struggles of life, which I see as a sort of slow-motion combat that everyone endures, though not everyone is in a position to write about it.