Preston Hollow resident Donovan Campbell started writing “Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood” during his second year of Harvard business school. The riveting book enjoyed multiple weeks on the New York Times Best-Seller List, despite the fact that its author insists he’s not really a writer and that he has no desire to ever write another book. The Cistercian Prep School and Princeton grad really didn’t even intend to write this one. The manuscript, about Campbell’s combat-heavy tour of duty in Iraq, began as a gift to the men in his platoon. When his professors read the story, however, they convinced him that it was one everyone should read.
It’s rare, in this era, to hear about someone with your educational credentials joining the military. Why did you join the Marines?
There are three reasons: I felt I’d been given a lot of things in my life I didn’t really deserve. I had a wonderful family and a terrific education, and I felt this great obligation to give back. Two, during college I started taking my faith seriously, and I felt strongly that I needed to serve. Three, I wanted to develop character and leadership skills within myself. During high school I had a mentor who was a great leader — whom I wanted to emulate. He attributed his strong character to the Marine Corps. It is rare, as you note. Out of my 2,000 or so Princeton classmates, one guy other than me joined the military.
I must ask — did your parents freak out?
My father was quietly pleased, I think, but my mother was completely horrified. She actually told me she felt they had wasted their money on my education! In reality, she was understandably scared for me. Once she realized I was serious — that I was really doing this — she supported me 100 percent.
Did you ever doubt your decision?
Between my junior and senior year I attended officer school — this is a boot-camp type experience. I hated it. Yes, I had second thoughts, but in the end, this was not something I necessarily wanted to do but something I needed to do.
Did you go straight to war?
During my first deployment, I worked as an intelligence officer. As soon as I returned home, I begged to be put on an infantry platoon. That is what I joined for — to lead on the front lines. I had been trained to do it and that’s what I wanted to do. And you know what they say, be careful what you ask for.
And that second deployment is the story behind “Joker One”?
Yes. It is about my Marine platoon, whose men were engaged in one of the war’s most casualty-intense deployments. We fought three-to-four times a week. These men were 18, 19 and 20-year-olds engaged in some of the worst fighting among civilians since [the] Vietnam [war]. Daily, they were asked to make split life and death decisions — to decide who to kill and who not to kill. In this situation they not only risk killing civilians, but they also risk turning the [Iraqi] population against them if they make the wrong decision. And we asked these men to make these decisions while they were regularly operating on three hours of sleep, in the extreme heat, carrying heavy equipment — when one of them was wounded the first question he would ask would be, “how soon can I get back.” That’s the type of men they are.
Did you expect to make it home alive?
No. I had seen so many injuries and casualties. I had made my peace with not making it back. You think when going in to combat that if you are smart enough and skilled enough you’ll mitigate the evil that is out there. Then you see your friends getting killed and you realize no matter how good or intelligent you are, the enemy is in control. To do our job meant to risk our lives again and again. So I had to resign myself to the idea that I might die.
So when did you decide to write the book?
You know, I didn’t even realize until I was back in school that we were unique; I assumed everyone was fighting like we were. The first year at Harvard Business I processed what had happened and I learned more and realized that these were truly special Marines. When you return from war, it is very difficult to explain your experiences to your family, friends or anyone who hasn’t been there. The book began as a gift to them, I wanted them to have it so they could share it with their families — so they would understand how magnificent these men were. I just wanted to tell the story. I proposed to professors that I write the story as a class credit, and they agreed to it. When they began reading it, they suggested I publish it. Random House published it, it was well-received and even wound up on the New York Times Best-Seller List, which is unusual for a first time writer. We sold every hard cover that was printed.
Any plans to write anything else?
No. I have no desire to be a professional writer.
Find “Joker One” at any major book retailer or download it for the Kindle — the cheapest option, notes Campbell — at amazon.com.
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