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Kesling ’02: Finding ‘True North’

Standing before a crowd of students, his former professors, and current faculty and staff, Ben Kesling ’02 challenged all who packed into Pioneer Chapel to think deeply about something that all soldiers and Wabash men alike possess.

Ben Kesling ’02 visited campus and read from his new book as part of the President's Distinguished Speakers Series.

“It’s a moral compass, or soul, as some may call it,” Kesling, a Harvard Divinity School graduate, Marine Corps veteran, and journalist, said during Chapel Talk ahead of his President's Distinguished Speaker Series (PDSS) presentation where he read from his new book, “Bravo Company: An Afghanistan Deployment and Its Aftermath.”

The calibration of one’s moral compass doesn’t happen all of the sudden, Kesling explained. It’s influenced by family, teachers, mentors, and events, and takes place gradually and steadily throughout a person's life.

“There’s no real true north of our moral compasses that you can put into words. You can’t cop out by saying finding true north is something simple like doing what the Bible says or following the law,” Kesling said. “True north is more mysterious and complex. A moral compass, much like an actual compass, doesn't tell us where the North Pole is actually located. It just points in that direction and leaves it up to us to make our way there.”

Whether we realize it or not, we are all presented with challenges that test our “true north” every day, Kesling said, further solidifying the direction our moral compasses point toward.

“We need to make sure we've done all we can to have a reliable and dependable way to know which way we should go and have the confidence to do it,” he said. “Thus, you need to make sure that your moral compass is ready at all times.”

After majoring in religion at Wabash, the Lexington, Kentucky, native earned a master of divinity degree from Harvard University, a path which was highly influenced by legendary Professor of Religion Bill Placher ’70 and his teachings on theology and the divine.

Halfway through that program, Kesling felt another calling: the Marine Corps.

“It wasn’t until the Iraq War kicked off in 2003 that I felt a calling to do some sort of service,” Kesling said. “I watched some of my friends from Harvard enlist in the military, and realized that if I didn’t do some sort of service, it’d regret it for the rest of my life.”

Ahead of the PDSS event, Kesling visited classrooms and interacted with students, including the editorial staff of The Bachelor. Students asked Kesling questions about his storytelling and work with The Journal and got tips on what it takes to pursue a career in journalism.

Kesling served as an infantry officer for more than six years and had two combat deployments. The first as a platoon commander in Fallujah, Iraq, during The Surge, and the second as a member of a NATO team based just outside of Kandahar, Afghanistan. He also served as an inspecting officer for Marine security guard detachments stationed at American embassies throughout the Middle East.

“It’s an odd thing to finally make your way into a conflict zone,” Kesling explained. “I remember the drive into the Fallujah, looking out the windows of the armored vehicle. It was unreal. The best way to describe it is through the lens of something you have already experienced, and the only thing that most people have experienced are the movies. … It’s impossible to fully prepare for something like that.”

Kesling doesn’t publicly share many stories about his time in combat. He admits he hasn’t “fully interrogated” himself, and is still unpacking those deployments and talking through what those experiences mean to him.

“Being in Fallujah, being on patrol, getting a Combat Action Ribbon, all that stuff … I think it affects your moral compass in ways that you sometimes don’t or can’t see while you’re in it,” he said. “It’s only in retrospect that you can recognize that or see the tangible side effects of going through those experiences.”

After the Marines, Kesling used the GI Bill to attend Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, during which time he interned with and was hired by The Wall Street Journal. He was previously a national security and veterans issues reporter for the Journal’s Washington bureau. He also has experience as a foreign and combat correspondent. Today, Kesling is a Midwest correspondent in the Chicago bureau where he also focuses on domestic security and veterans issues.

Kesling’s latest project, “Bravo Company,” tells the story of the war in Afghanistan through the eyes of the men of one unit, a combat-hardened parachute infantry regiment in the 82nd Airborne Division. It follows the men from their initial enlistment and training through their deployment and return home.

The writing of “Bravo Company” served two goals, Kesling said. One was to document history, making details of combat and veteran life more accessible to a civilian population who may not know anything about it. The other was for those who have served, as a way to help them see their own story and better understand the things they went through while in combat and after returning.

“Writing this book made me more deeply realize all the things I could have done better in my life. It laid bare all the mistakes, misgivings and errors I need to atone for, and my need for redemption,” Kesling read during the PDSS event. “I think we’d be better off in our lives, and as a species, if we were all honest about such matters. But recognizing those many past failings opened the door to true redemption, to making a better future, beginning right now.”“I think it’s extraordinarily important for both the civilian and military worlds to know what it feels like when a moment is suspended in eternity as you realize a suicide bomber is about to blow up,” Kesling said, “or what’s it like to see your friend die in front of you, or what it’s like to find out, as a dad, that your son has been killed in combat and then to go collect his remains.”

Through years of interviewing other veterans about their experiences in combat, Kesling has also started to address his own feelings, and how being in and reporting on war has affected him as a Marine, a journalist, a father, and as a person.

“By writing, reporting, and working on this book,” Kesling said, “I’m able to make meaning and to have positive direction at all times.”

Kesling said he’s lucky in that regard for having “barreled forward in life” since leaving the Marines. He’s packed the last decade with things and people — reporting on issues that matter most to him with the Journal and starting a family with his wife — that all help him stay on a true north path.

“When I reflect on my life, there are things that I regret doing or not doing, things that I would have changed, and others that I would have kept the same,” Kesling said. “I’ve learned that perfection comes in its imperfection.”