Friday, April 5, 2024

Q&A with Sean D. Carberry




Sean D. Carberry is the author of the new memoir Passport Stamps: Searching the World for a War to Call Home. A longtime journalist, he lives in Washington, D.C.


Q: What inspired you to write Passport Stamps?


A: I think most journalists who cover wars or spend time in places like the Congo or Yemen think about writing books about what they saw. And many do write such books.


Part of the reason, and certainly in my case, was that friends and family wanted to know more about my experiences in those places and urged me to write a book about it. So, the notion of writing a book about my international journalism career wasn't particularly novel or original.


I thought about it on and off for many years, but for a long time I felt that I wasn't able or wasn't ready to do it. I had doubts about my ability to sit and write a book, and for a long time I was overwhelmed by the prospect of reliving the experiences. It was just too daunting to do while everything was fresh.


But I reached a point during the pandemic when I got to a very dark place, and I was having difficulty seeing a happy future on the path that I was traveling. So, I took a mental health break from my government job and contemplated my options.


I decided then it was time to write the book. I needed to process all the things I had experienced. And I also needed to confront my fear and apprehension of taking on a project like writing a book.


So, I decided my only way forward in life then was to write the book and put it out there and use it to heal and to bring attention to mental health and the plight of those who work in conflict zones.


The key for me when I decided to write it was to come up with an approach that would be different than a lot of the other war correspondent memoirs. My feeling was I wasn't as accomplished or notable as many others who had written books, and so the question in my mind was, why would anyone care about what I have to say?


The answer I came up with was that aside from having been an NPR reporter in Afghanistan among other things, I would say things that others rarely did. I would reveal my personal motivations for getting into conflict journalism, good and bad, and be candid about my experiences and what I was thinking and feeling.


I decided to really pull back the curtain on the craft of so-called vulture journalism and the impact that work has on the people doing it.


So, I went into writing my book with a framework that I wasn't writing it to make myself look heroic or to be admired or to impress people.


I wanted to take people on an intense human journey, show my flaws, show my growth and changes, and raise awareness about the mental and emotional impact on civilians who work in hostile environments.


I also wanted to take people deep inside other cultures and places that they often only knew about because there were wars going on there.


That’s why in the preface I describe the book as having three layers: the first is the Bourdain-esque travel book to weird places, the second is the behind-the-scenes of journalism in difficult places, and the third is the more universal human journey of processing grief and questions of where you belong in the world.


Q: The journalist Jacki Lyden said of the book, “This is a clarion call for better mental health treatment after a confusing exodus from that [war correspondent] world, where writing knits together that which is frayed and keeps indelible experiences on the shelves of story, always.” What do you think of that description?


A: I think she nailed it and said it more eloquently than I could. We did not coordinate at all on her blurb. She came up with that entirely on her own after reading the book, and it was gratifying to see that she zeroed in on the call to action of the book.


It was reassuring to me that I had gotten across that message in the book, and that's what a reader would take away, because that is what I really want people to focus on after reading it.


I want the reader to realize that journalists and other civilians who work in difficult places are human beings and are affected by that work, and there is not enough attention paid to that. And news organizations and other organizations that send people into harm's way do not provide sufficient resources.


It's frustrating that there is still so little awareness and so few resources dedicated to that. There is certainly a lot more talk today about mental health and trauma and journalism then when I was in the thick of it. But I still think there is a lot of virtue signaling and talk but not enough action.


I think across the board, from journalism schools to news organizations, there needs to be more emphasis placed on trauma and mental health. Aspiring journalists need to know what kinds of situations they might face and get some education and tools that help prepare them for it.


And news organizations need to provide better oversight and care of the people they asked to take great risks physically and psychologically to cover news.


And this isn’t just about war journalism. Journalists who have no inclination at all to cover conflict are still likely to encounter some form of trauma in their work. Journalists who specialize in covering city hall or sports for that matter could end up in the midst of a mass shooting or covering a climate event where people in their community are killed or suffering.


And they need to know how to conduct journalism that doesn’t further traumatize victims and they need tools to process the impact of reporting on death and suffering.


I mean, if I were to add up the death toll I reported in my time covering not just wars but Arab Spring protests in Bahrain, religious violence in Pakistan, militia attacks in the Congo, terrorist bombings in Morocco, on and on, it’s a staggering amount of suffering to consume and try to process.


The other thing Jacki’s comment captures is the ongoing struggle of living outside of that world. It wasn’t my decision to leave war journalism and international reporting.


When NPR closed the Kabul bureau at the end of 2014, there were no other openings and they were in a round of staff cuts, so I was musical-chaired out, so to speak. I tried to find an overseas position with another organization, but the supply and demand dynamics weren’t in my favor.


So, I ended up back in D.C. with no reentry care or support system. I had no idea then how altered I was by the seven-plus years I had spent immersed in trauma and suffering, and I believe now more than ever it was irresponsible of NPR to do nothing to ensure I was OK after the time I spent for them in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc.


Had they provided me with some structured evaluation and counseling when I returned from Afghanistan, I think a lot of the struggles I’ve had and bad decisions I made since then would not have happened.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: The title of the book emerged out of a conversation I had with a therapist in fall 2020 during my mental health break.


As we were talking about my experiences and what might go into a book, he made the comment that he would love to read the story behind the stamps in my passport. The light went off at that moment. That gave me initial ideas about how to frame the book, and I knew then Passport Stamps was the main title.


The subtitle evolved during the process of writing the book. I had some early ideas and working subtitles about the theme of tribe and my search for a place or community where I felt a sense of belonging that I discuss throughout the book.


I believe as humans we are all tribal or have tribal instincts to varying degrees. We all seek, consciously or not, settings and groups where we feel safe and comfortable. It can take many forms — from literal tribes to church groups, clubs, fraternities and sororities, summer camp cabin mates. As we see every day, some forms of tribalism are healthy, and some are not.


I realized looking back over my childhood, I had a strong draw to intense experiences that connected me with other people, that forged little tribes. And I always craved that sense of connection and that notion of kindred spirits who had deep bonds.


As an adult I found myself wandering in and out of different tribes, and ultimately, the foreign/war correspondent tribe was where I felt most at home and most myself.


That tribe included people from all over the world who had different ethnicities, religions, or politics, but there were common elements of us as people who were seeking to make the world a better place or help people or seeking to explore the world and understand other people and cultures. And we were all thrill seekers and misfits to some degree or another too.


But the tribe of journalists and other people in war zones, that was where I felt at home.


And though I don't go into great detail about it, the last chapters of the book deal with the pain and grief of leaving that tribe.


It's like veterans talking about their difficulty reacclimating to life at home after serving in combat. You forge relationships with people and share experiences that anyone who wasn't there simply can't understand or relate to, and it can be very difficult to live outside of that world or tribe.


In many ways, I haven't felt at home since my time in the war correspondent tribe became to an end.


So, those are the factors that went into crafting the title and subtitle, and I’m grateful my publisher Madville was on board with that from the outset.


Q: Can you say more about the impact did it have on you to write the book, and what you hope readers take away from it?


A: I covered some of this in previous answers, and honestly, this is a question to which the answer continues to evolve because I continue to process, and as I do book talks and interviews, new questions come up that make me think about things differently or see things that I didn’t clue into when I was writing the book.


There was definitely a healing aspect for me to go back through and relive a lot of my experiences. Some of the experiences were painful and difficult and I continue to process those and figure out how they fit into who I am today and my life and my worldview and how I move forward.


I also had some incredible experiences during that time, and it's bittersweet to look back on those. I miss a lot of that period of my life. I had incredible, unique experiences that few people have or will, and there's no question I miss that and still look for ways to get back to doing that kind of work.


Roaming around the jungles of the Eastern Congo and visiting remote villages and talking to people who have lived incredibly difficult and unimaginable lives for anyone who grew up in America, that was powerful to me, and I feel it was really important for me to be out in the places I was going to and hearing from people who were well outside the reach of diplomats and the United Nations or other entities and to tell their stories.


I miss doing that important work of giving voice to people and letting the world know that there are human beings at the receiving end of what often seem like clinical policy decisions made by governments. So, I definitely had wistful moments while writing the book.


It brought back a lot of good and bad memories. But I think I am much better off today for having delved into it and accepting it is all part of who I am and continuing to process and work on that.


As I mentioned earlier, what I want readers to take away from it is to understand that there are a lot of journalists and civilians who go out into dangerous places hoping to make a difference. And that work is life-changing in many respects.


Obviously, some people don't make it home at all. Some people make it home physically and psychologically broken and never fully recover and many come back altered in ways they might never really understand or process themselves period.


So, on the macro level, I want this book to raise awareness about that and to put pressure on news organizations and other organizations to make mental health care a central part of their missions and obligations to their employees. I want people to devote more attention and resources to making sure the people who do this work are as OK as they can be on the back end of it.


On an individual level I hope it makes a difference for people who are working through these things themselves. I have heard from some people that after they read the book, they decided to get professional help or to start working on unprocessed trauma and impacts of this work.


But others who never set foot in a war zone or a place like South Sudan or Syria have said the book moved them to get mental health care for other things they were dealing with.


So, that is incredibly gratifying to know that telling my story has made a difference in the lives of other people like that.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: In addition to my day job as managing editor of National Defense magazine, I am really focused on the call to action of the book. My concern is getting this message out, elevating this discussion, and helping people like me, who have struggled or are struggling with the impacts of working in war zones and dangerous environments.


I’m doing that through book talks, talks at journalism schools, and my work with the Movember Foundation, which is an international nonprofit focused on men’s health, particularly prostate cancer and mental health/suicide prevention.


There is a bit of paying it forward to what I am doing and trying to help the next generation of journalists have more resources and education and support than my peers and predecessors did.


What has been disappointing is how difficult it has been to generate this discussion. I still think there are a lot of disincentives in the journalism industry and in aid and development sectors.


A lot of people working in those jobs are reluctant to open up about their mental health and to seek care because of potential stigma and fear it might prevent them from being allowed back in the field.


And I think a lot of organizations still don't really want to accept responsibility for mental health. So, it is very much an uphill battle, and something, as I said before, where there is a lot of virtue signaling and talk, but the action is still nowhere near meeting the rhetoric and nowhere close to meeting the need. So, I am taking every opportunity I get to call attention to that.


I also continue to write on Substack and talk in other venues about international affairs and try to help people understand what’s happening in places like Afghanistan or Yemen and why — to help people try to make sense of faraway places.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Well, my cat Squeak who I rescued from the streets of Kabul when she was a kitten is happy and healthy and continuing to love her comfortable life in the United States. She’s a bit of a hero of my story, and I’ll just tease that cat lovers have a reason to read the book.


But I think the main thing is that I’m here and available to talk about all of this. I’m available to talk to journalism schools and students. I’m available to talk to working journalists. I’m available to speak with mental health groups and advocates. I’m available to talk to veterans who are interested in writing as a way to process and heal.


For that matter, I’m still mulling over the idea of going back to school and getting a degree in trauma counseling/coaching. We’ll see where things go.


Thank you for your interest and thanks to everyone who has read the book and supported me in my journey so far, and I look forward to continuing this conversation and helping others.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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