Office of Public Affairs

Afghanistan veteran and former congressional staffer enrolls at USM

Rob McCann portrait

To new USM student Rob McCann, life has been a long, long march.

As a boots-on-the-ground Marine, he trekked across the Afghan city of Marjah, carrying rockets amid the war's single biggest offensive. As a veteran, he hiked the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, raising money in the memory of a fallen brother Marine.

And he found his own peace.

"I have certainly tried to live my life in a way which honors some of my friends who aren't here anymore," said McCann, 28. "I try to give back to a community and a country I care about and watched people die to defend. I think that's where my interest in politics stems from."

He spent the last two and a half years working for Rep. Chellie Pingree as her veterans constituent services representative. In September, he began studying political science at USM.
He knows that too will be a challenge.

"There's a welcomeness here,' McCann said. "They've been so helpful. But I have a lot of work to do."

At 19, he'd fled classroom life at Nova Scotia's Acadia University. Halfway through his first semester, he drove home to Maine and enlisted in the Marines.

He requested the infantry to ensure he'd see combat.

"I wanted to be able to come home and say, 'I fought for my country.' And I wanted there to be no dispute about that," he said. "It's certainly something some people tried to push me away from. I don't regret it."

Rob McCann in AfghanistanHe got his wish.

He joined "Operation Moshtarak," also known as the Battle of Marjah, shortly after he arrived in southern Afghanistan.

Like so many Marines, his team was tasked with clearing the Taliban-held city.

"We dropped in on one side and we walked to the other side," McCann said. "And we did that for 90 days straight."

The city had mine fields, improvised explosive devices and a variety of other booby traps.

"I got to experience all that war has to offer the 21st century fighter," he said. "It was exactly what I thought I wanted."

He worried little about policy. It wasn't his role.

"I was just a 20-year-old kid," he said.

During that first deployment, his role was mostly carrying rockets and small arms. When he returned to Afghanistan for a second deployment, he led his own 15-man team.

He would return to the region a third time, to train soldiers in Jordan. He was honorably discharged in Nov. 2012 and returned home.

He had to relearn how to feel and experience everyday life.

"Obviously, I had some pretty bad experiences in the Middle East," he said. Two weeks into his first deployment, his best friend, Kyle Coutu, was killed. Others followed.

"Five of my friends died in 2010, and I didn't shed a single tear," he said. "My emotions had become emotionless."

But following his discharge, he met with Kyle's family. Then, McCann and a friend began fundraising for a charity Kyle's parents created, eventually raising more than $30,000. In March, they started hiking the Appalachian Trail from its southern end in Georgia.

The hike gave McCann time to think.

"It was a chance to clear my head and find a new balance in my life," he said. "I was a little angry and little flustered and just confused by the last five years."

Mile after mile, he felt better.

"When I got done hiking, I felt cleared for the first time since I had got out of the service," he said. "I just felt better."

On the summit of Mt. Katahdin -- the northern end of the trail -- he cried.

"My eyes produced tears for the first time in five years," he said. "It brought empathy back into my life and made me see things a different way."

Soon, he began working in Portland at Preble Street, working with homeless people. He then went to work with Veterans Inc.

"I was working one on one with people," he said. "I was helping guys get better jobs."

Rob McCann with Rep. Chellie PingreeAnd when the chance rose to do some of the same kind of work for Pingree, through the national Wounded Warrior Fellowship Program, he applied and was accepted. Work included a wide variety of assistance, from helping veterans and their dependents navigate the Pentagon and VA bureaucracies to awarding medals that had been earned but never received. Occasionally, they worked on legislation.

"As long as there is something tangible and constructive for us to do on behalf of a veteran, we try to do it," McCann said.

In one instance, the young Congressional staffer went above and beyond.

After a ceremony for a veteran at the Togus VA complex, the 92-year-old father of an honoree collapsed with a heart attack. McCann jumped to the aid of the elderly man, who was a World War II veteran. He administered CPR until paramedics arrived.

The action drew a statement of praise from Pingree on the floor of the House of Representatives.

"I couldn't be more proud of the work that Rob does in our office every day -- and I am especially proud of his quick response to save the life of a fellow veteran," Pingree said.

The Congresswoman's thanks were "humbling," McCann said.

"I just happened to be one of a couple of people who helped," he said.

Helping veterans led McCann to USM.

He plans to use his political science education to help him continue to find work that helps veterans.

So many need a hand.

McCann, himself, says he's a happy man. Aiding others is part of that. He also married about a year after his return.

Meanwhile, he is reluctant to make a fuss of his own service.

"I was part of a large contingent of people who responded to a bell that America rang," he said.

Daniel Hartill, Office of Public Affairs