How this UNC grad plans to elect more veterans to Congress

UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus Rye Barcott, who served five years in the Marines, will give the commencement address Sunday morning in Chapel Hill.
UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus Rye Barcott, who served five years in the Marines, will give the commencement address Sunday morning in Chapel Hill.

Rye Barcott of Charlotte, a 2001 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, will give the commencement address Sunday at his alma mater. Barcott served in the Marines for five years in Bosnia, the Horn of Africa and Iraq. Barcott, 39, is co-founder and CEO of With Honor, a new organization that helps elect post-9/11 veterans to Congress.

Q. When you were a UNC student, you gave $26 to a poor widow in Kenya. She leveraged that into a medical clinic that served 15,000 patients last year. What did you learn from Tabitha Festo?

A. Tabitha and I co-founded Carolina for Kibera (Editor's note: Festo lived in a poor, densely populated area of Nairobi called Kibera). She was my mentor. It was not until she died tragically that I learned of terrifying pain that she endured yet never spoke of. Her strength and humility reminds me of my grandfather and other veterans from the greatest generation. These giants lived their values and never forgot that our purpose on this planet is to serve missions that are greater than ourselves. I try to emulate them, especially when I feel self-pity and am looking for excuses.

Q. In your book, "It Happened on the Way to War: A Marine's Path to Peace," you wrote that talent is universal but opportunity is not. What can Americans do to create more opportunity in our country for more people?

A. America is divided in ways that were unimaginable to me 20 years ago as a student at UNC. Tribal divisions underlie what presidential historian Jon Meacham recently called an “existential moment” for our country. We must find ways to bridge our divides in order to create more opportunity. I believe every American can get further out of their comfort zone and better get to know Americans who do not share their views. This is especially critical for our next generation of leaders.

Q. A quote from you is etched in stone in a walkway near Memorial Hall at UNC. What's it like to have your words publicly preserved for the ages at your alma mater?

A. It is a great honor that I am not worthy of. The other quotes are by Tar Heel veterans killed in action in every war in U.S. history. They are our sacred war dead. At the time the memorial was built, no Tar Heel alumnus had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. I hope that is still the case. My own words are from a letter to my wife about combat in Fallujah, Iraq.

Q. Why did you co-found the group With Honor and what do you hope to achieve?

A. I co-founded With Honor along with other veterans to increase the number of next-generation veterans in Congress in order to help fix our nation’s broken politics. It’s no secret that debilitating partisanship and polarization in DC is near a record high, while veteran representation in Congress is near a historic low at 19 percent. A new generation of principled leaders is needed to reverse the dysfunction and polarization. With Honor is committed to helping next-generation veterans compete for Congressional seats by independently supporting their campaigns and leveling the financial playing field.

Q.You'll give the commencement address in Kenan Stadium at your alma mater. No pressure at all. What do you hope to achieve with your speech?

A. I’m taking a risk with my speech, titled “Take the Pain,” in hopes that it helps some of the graduates maximize the positive impact they can have with their lives.

Drescher, opinion/solutions editor, is at jdrescher@newsobserver.com; 919-829-4515; @john_drescher.