After a decorated military career and service in more than fifty countries, former Major General of the United States Marine Corps Mastin Robeson has settled in the Upstate—and is now helping to chart rehabilitation for local veterans
Thirty-six years ago, Upstate resident Mastin Robeson probably had no idea he was standing at the front end of a long, slow ambush.
Fresh out of Bryan College, the Carolina native found himself flush with a beautiful bride, a business degree, and a desire to follow his family legacy into service for his country. He and Nancy, his college sweetheart of pacifist tendencies, prayed about what should come next. And in 1975, as the shadow of Vietnam continued to stretch across the country, he took a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps’ infantry. He would stay in only three years, he and Nancy agreed. To push it longer might fray family ties, because of far-flung deployments and nomadic military homesteading.
The Marines, however, had other plans for him. More than three decades later, Robeson would get out of the Corps, shouldering two stars and a command history set against a war backdrop that is the stuff of legend. The Major General, however, is not willing to pack away his duty alongside his uniform. There’s more that needs to be done to help and heal the wounded. He’s a Marine, after all, and always will be. And, everybody knows, they leave no man behind.
“My father served in World War II, my brother in Vietnam,” Robeson explains. “I wanted to go to the most demanding branch of service.” To a young Robeson, the Marine Corps presented the best challenge. “And I wanted the challenge,” he says, his voice almost wistful with recollection. In the context of his stately living room manicured with fine furnishings and the soothing snores of his beloved lab dozing in the corner, his sentiment seems abstract. But just as his old Red Dodge pick-up truck parked in the driveway in his tony gated community invites a closer look, so too does his career.
By the time he retired in February 2010, Robeson had served in more than 55 countries. He had amassed combat experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, the Philippines, Bosnia, the Horn of Africa, Liberia, and Somalia. Doing his job meant interacting with presidents, prime ministers, ambassadors, and foreign defense ministers. He led both the Second and Third Marine Divisions, the Third and Fourth Marine Expeditionary Brigades (commanding as many as 17,000 in one post alone), and a counterterrorism task force in Africa. As director of strategy for Multi-National Force Iraq, he helped General David Petraeus recast the beleaguered Iraq campaign. It was a counterinsurgency shift credited with turning the tide of combat. His career swan song, however, rivals it all. As commanding general of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, he went on to oversee the Corps deploy its first Special Operations Task Force in the hinterlands of Afghanistan, the toughest fighting terrain in the world.
“It was one of those situations where every time the Marine Corps offered us another set of orders, my wife and I would pray about it, talk about it, and say, let’s go do this one and get out,” Robeson says. That logic held about fourteen years before it occurred to the couple that the lifestyle was worth sticking with for the long haul. Despite initial fears, the military proved a positive influence on them and their four children, they found. As of today, the Robesons have moved 18 times. “This is our twenty-fifth house,” he adds with a laugh. “Looking back on it, we wouldn’t change a thing.”
Retirement, however, has ushered in change for everyone in the family. The general sleeps a little later than usual on some mornings, and he and Nancy relish being close to their three grandchildren in Greenville. He is enjoying a second career as a business consultant for companies around the world. Most significantly, perhaps, he has been around to help his 90-year-old parents transition from their remote and independent lifestyle atop a North Carolina mountain to one closer to medical care and immediate family. It was a mission that took almost a year for Robeson to pull off, a timeline that by comparison exceeded some of the most complicated of military maneuvers. His strategy in convincing his father, though, was simple: “Spending time with him, and taking the time to create a shared vision, which is, I think, one of the foundational pieces to leadership. It’s not telling people what to do. It’s how do you invest the time so that you get their input. It’s a joint decision, and they feel as much a part of it as you.”
Listening and investing time are primary tenants of Robeson’s leadership style, priorities that leave indelible memories when coupled with the realities of war.
“In the last ten years, you just couldn’t serve in an operational unit without being struck by the families, the Marines who were wounded, who were killed,” Robeson says. As a commanding general, he has attended dozens of funerals of those who served under him, and visited hundreds who were injured. “I still call some of the widows of the Marines who were lost under my command,” he says.
Military tradition dictates that the fallen are memorialized with the erection of a battlefield cross. The soldier or Marine’s rifle is punched rigid into the ground or into a sandbag, bayonet first. His helmet alights the weapon’s stock, dog tags are draped, and boots are placed at the base. “It leaves an impression,” Robeson says somberly. “You became vested in not just how you make Marines successful on the battlefield, but how to get them off it healthy.”
To be sure, medical and logistical advancements in combat are saving more lives than ever before. Positioning aircraft that can assist in transporting injured to medical facilities, as well as blood-clotting systems and improved tourniquets have almost eradicated bleeding out on the battlefield, which historically claimed about 80 percent of a war’s dead. They’ve been phenomenal advancements, Robeson admits.
“The piece we had the most difficulty with is the subjective piece. It’s harder to put your finger on it,” he says. “It’s the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and the TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury).” Exacerbating the issue is the dichotomy of the military culture. “We work very, very hard to train our Marines to be independent,” he says. At age 18 or 19, they are emboldened with personae that allow them to go into another country and have an ambassadorial-type influence. “You send them to combat and you train them to be aggressive and to face risk and danger and have the courage to move forward in the face of whither and fire, and we somehow think they’re going to stop being that way when they come home,” Robeson says.
“It’s not different from war forever,” he says. “You lose your innocence when you go to war. The real key for a leader is how to return to society a better person after you’ve served your country in the military.”
“The physical ability to recover is always quicker than the emotional ability to recover,” Robeson concludes. It’s a truth that, to him, highlights an unraveling seam in care for combat veterans that he now has in his sights. Those with physical injuries or who seek treatment are enveloped into the Veterans Administration’s system and all its medical resources. Those without physical injury and who don’t speak up about residual emotional issues, however, are left with no recourse for VA medical help after they get out of the service.
“Many times they get out, and twelve, eighteen months later, they’ve got anger-management problems or their marriage is on the rocks, they’ve got problems with their children, they’ve lost their job, they’re deep into the bottle or pain meds, but they have no VA benefits,” he explains.
While veterans can potentially regain eligibility for VA care for lingering psychological issues, it can take upwards of a year to complete the process. Here in the Greenville region, those vets of all services who have fallen through the cracks are numbered in the hundreds, Robeson estimates conservatively. The interim solution, according to Robeson, could also be found in the Upstate community.
“My challenge [to the Upstate] is how do we come up with a comprehensive system to identify these young men and women, and then offer them civilian help until they can get under the VA,” he contends. “Let’s take ownership of our wounded.”
Those words are far from hollow. Robeson intends to spark a movement in the Upstate, perhaps launching a foundation consolidating civilian, medical, psychological, corporate, and religious resources. He has the blessing of a local Marine officer who is tasked with helping coordinate resources for those physically injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. He, perhaps better than anyone, understands how vital care is for the broken.
“We’d love to have an outreach arm in the Upstate to reach all our veterans, specifically post-9/11 younger veterans,” says Marine Corps Captain Charlie Hall, who is the support coordinator for the Marine Corps’ Wounded Warrior Regiment in the Upstate. He’s also Robeson’s son-in-law.
No, the general is not ready to hang it up. There’s too much to be done, no time to wax poetic about the career behind him. “I don’t have a legacy. If there’s a legacy, it’s the magnificent Marines I was privileged to work with. They are the legacy,” he says, emphatically. “You have to convince them that when you have post-traumatic stress, that it’s not just bad luck. This is an issue that they have to deal with,” Robeson says. “There’s nothing new about this. This has been part of the warrior’s struggle from day one. It’s just that we haven’t taken an aggressive approach in trying to solve it.”
But with Robeson’s history, vision, and resolve, there’s little doubt that he won’t rest until there is a solution.