Author focuses on courage, challenges in dramatic military accounts
by Steven Johnson, Staff Writer
The road from civil engineering to writing stories about the survivors of horrific combat is not a linear one.
But for Jerry Barnes, it’s been incredibly rewarding. The Troutville, Va., resident has just published “So Help Me God,” his second collection of powerful war stories certain to move even the most stoic reader.
“The common thread is a deep admiration for the people who volunteer for this country,” says Barnes, a member of Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative. “Combat veterans will talk to another veteran and once they talk to a veteran they know is listening, they’ll pour out their heart.”
Instead of constructing things as a civil engineer, Barnes has deconstructed combat veteran stories — more than 100 to date, with books three and four on the drawing board.
Barnes started on his path in rural Dinwiddie County, watching with the wonderment of a seven-year-old as the state paved the road he lived on.
When the project superintendent invited him to tag along in his truck, a career was born. “I became the assistant to the guy who was running the job,” Barnes says. “That’s where the dream was to become a civil engineer and I never lost it to this day.”
Barnes landed at Virginia Tech as part of the Corps of Cadets. He took a detour when previously undetected colorblindness disqualified him from piloting a jet.
Dejected, he wandered into the Army’s office in Blacksburg, hoping for better luck. The Army signed him up for its Corps of Engineers. Barnes spent more than three decades with the Corps and in civilian-related work, at one point directing the 1,200-employee-strong district in St. Louis.
The irony: Barnes never actually built anything. Higher-ups, impressed with his briefing and public speaking skills, moved him into public affairs where he toured the world and briefed top officials as a congressional liaison.
“It all got started with my mother’s gift of gab that got translated to her son — the ability to listen to mad politicians and promise I would do the best I can to solve problems,” he says. “Listen well, and you can have a good career.”
The ability to listen came in handy after Barnes retired in 2007. He assembled 120 short stories about his career, and clueless about the publishing business, took them to a Christian writer’s conference.
Les Stobbe, a well-regarded editor, coach and literary agent, looked at them, and suggested Barnes focus on a Reader’s Digest type of treatment of combat stories. Don’t embellish them, but don’t downplay them, Stobbe advised.
Another career was born. Barnes started with three stories, including one in which he missed hopping on a helicopter by 30 seconds; the chopper went down, killing all but one passenger.
“When Heaven Visits: Dramatic Accounts of Military Heroes” was published in 2019 with 24 stories. His wife, Laura, served as his first editor, disgustedly asking after an early draft, “Did you pay any attention in English class in Blacksburg?” “No,” Barnes says, “but I married someone who did.”
The market has expanded as Barnes has become known as the go-to author of combat survivor accounts, though readers should know not all the stories have happy conclusions. He’s held back on a couple of stories because he did not feel he could relate them in a dignified way.
“This old man who got a C in English never designed a thing. All I did was deal with mad politicians, but I’ve had a career most people only dream about because of the ability to talk and the ability to listen.”
For more, visit combatsurvivorheroes.com, where you can purchase signed copies of Barnes’s works or contact him about stories or appearances.