Author Doug Stanton is a great listener.
It's a skill he honed first as an immersive reporter then, perfected as the head of the National Writers Series in his hometown of Traverse City, Mich. "Listening without judgment" explains how he's able to dig deeply into the humanity of his subjects - both the real and the exalted.
As a contributing editor for esteemed publications such as Esquire and Men's Journal, he persuaded celebrities to remove their public masks and step away from the spotlight. He's gone hunting with Kurt Russell, breathed deeply during asana with Sting, listened to a melancholy John Mellencamp ruminate on life and love, and gone fishing with Patagonia's founder Yvon Chouinard.
But his best work has come when he's trained his ear toward regular folk who rise to the occasion when confronted with life-or-death situations.
His first book, "In Harm's Way" (Henry Holt, 2001) about the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis by a Japanese torpedo during World War II, came right out of one of those Men's Journal pieces. He hadn't planned on writing a book, but, as he recalls, "I remained really fascinated in my writing - even the magazine stuff - by how people do their jobs. In this case, it was survival, and the emotional journey they go through to make really hard decisions in these existential moments - in this case, surviving at sea. That's my focus and what I think I do really well as a storyteller."
In 2003, he traveled to Fort Campbell, Ky., to talk with the first soldiers - mounted special forces - who went into Afghanistan after 9/11 to fight the Taliban. Those conversations led him to write his second book, "Horse Soldiers" (Scribner, 2009), which was just released as the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced feature film "12 Strong," starring Michael Shannon and Chris Hemsworth. It's not the typical war story, filled with explosions and manufactured patriotism. Rather, it creates a nuanced portrait of people who volunteer to fight as well as the people of Afghanistan, who want a different future for themselves.
"What I wanted to know wasâ€¦ how do you do this? What's it like? How does a person love their family and feel the need and the duty to go to war? â€¦ It seemed like the heart of the book," Stanton says. "You read this book to feel a sense of kinship and empathy with the soldiers, their families and the Afghans."
While conducting research for that book, Stanton flew to Kabul. There, he met Stan Parker, who at the time was head of air operations at Bagram Air Base. Parker would serve as the central figure in Stanton's third book, "The Odyssey of Echo Company: The 1968 Tet Offensive and the Epic Battle to Survive the Vietnam War" (Scribner, 2017).
Stanton endured a 10-year odyssey of his own to bring the story of Echo Company to life on the page by recreating with precision and personal details the hellish struggle Parker and his platoon mates braved in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam 50 years ago. But it was the scorn and silence Parker and his brothers faced when they returned home that affected them so deeply, they still haven't fully made peace with the war.
"What I discovered with this last book tour," explains Stanton, "is America is filled with Stans, and we haven't listened. America is still really confused about Vietnam. It is our unfinished storyâ€¦ You either protested the war or you fought there or weren't born. All any veteran is asking you to do - and their families, too. We keep forgetting about the men and women who stay behind - all they want you to do is just listen, even acknowledgeâ€¦ It's not healthy for us to ask a generation of people to keep in a story of trauma."
Parker's is ultimately a narrative of healing from that ordeal, which leads him back to Vietnam, where he reunites with a former Viet Cong soldier whom he faced on the battlefield a half century before.
"I think I'm patient â€¦" Stanton observes about his process of finding the personal story against the backdrop of history. "I'm drawn to people who are trying to do the right thing at the most difficult moment when no one is looking - especially when no one is looking - because that's the story of working, period. You just do your job and just leave every place better than it was when you arrived."
Book: "The Odyssey of Echo Company"
When: 2:50 p.m. Feb. 17
Where: Jepson Center, Neises Auditorium, 207 W. York St.