Happy Valley combat vet’s memoir looks candidly at substance abuse, PTSD and healing
Bob Stark was 18 years old when he first jumped out of a Boeing C-17 aircraft and parachuted into northern Iraq. It was 2003, a year and a half after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Stark, along with his 173th Airborne Brigade, were on a mission, he said: Find Saddam Hussain and weapons of mass destruction.
“I didn't know that was happening when I signed up, but that is what was going on,” said Stark, who now lives in Happy Valley on the Kenai Peninsula. “I just jumped right into the mix.”
Stark’s jump marked the beginning of the first of two tours in Iraq, a subject that he talks candidly about in his new memoir, “Warflower.” The book is a warts-and-all look at Stark’s tumultuous childhood growing up in Nome and Seward, his combat experience and his struggles with substance abuse and PTSD. He began writing to cope with some of his traumatic experiences.
“The initial spark was out of what seemed like desperation,” Stark said. “I felt like there was a period of silence and I didn't know what to do. I had all that nervous energy.”
Stark said he started the draft of his book 15 years ago. He had finished his military service and was processing it all, alone in a cabin in Costa Rica. Initially, the manuscript was over 250,000 words.
“It was full of passion,” he said. “However, it was also full of a lot of finger pointing, a lot of anger, name-calling and vulgarity.”
Stark decided to put the manuscript away temporarily and spent a few years traveling around the world.
When he returned to the states, he decided to pursue two of his passions, creative writing and sustainable agriculture, at Evergreen State College in Washington. Stark’s interest in agriculture stemmed from a profound experience he witnessed involving an Iraqi farmer.
“I remember the time we were doing a patrol in the Fertile Crescent down there. And we were driving through a farmer's fields, just ruining their crops. And I thought to myself, that would be such an incredible life, to live out in the country, and grow food.”
He sighed while remembering the farmer’s reaction.
“Absolute blank stare, just defeated,” he said.
After graduating from Evergreen State, Stark returned to Alaska in 2012, to buy a farm of his own. His 20-acre farm is in Happy Valley, about 50 miles north of Homer. He runs it with his wife and two children. Although he is happy, he said he still struggles.
“I still get counseling all the time and I do not see it as a weakness,” Stark said.
Stark said he knows he's not alone. He wants others to know that, too. He mentioned the number 22. He said that’s the number of veterans who die by suicide everyday.
“It's not like you just send all these boys and young girls to war and they come back and they can just rebuild your country,” Stark said. “You can very much destroy their lives. So yeah, 22 vets every day.”
While Stark wrote the memoir for his own healing process, he hoped that the book would encourage veterans to share their stories.
“Because the healing that comes from being able to write and share our stories. It's priceless,” he said.
Stark’s book, Warflower is out now. Copies are available in Anchorage at Tidal Wave Books, in Homer at the Homer Bookstore and in Seward at Primrose Provisions and Resurrect Art Cafe.