retired Brigadier General Robert P. McFarlin

Camas High School history teacher Lori Thornton (left) invited retired Brigadier General Robert P. McFarlin to her class to give her students a first-hand account of the Cold War. (Photo by Paul Valencia)

Posted: June 19, 2017

CAMAS — Every story he told came back to a central theme.

The right people in the right spot with the proper leadership can change the world.

“Whatever it takes” his soldiers would tell him in the sands of the desert. He heard the same mentality near the demilitarized zone in South Korea. In Vietnam, too. And in Europe, while preparing for the Russians.

“Whenever you’re with people that motivated, it’s the greatest thing in the world,” said retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Robert P. McFarlin. “I love being around leadership, around soldiers, around people doing their job and doing it right.”

On Friday, the general was a guest speaker at Camas High School, helping history teacher Lori Thornton.

“It’s a continuation of my duty,” McFarlin said. “I can give something they might not otherwise hear. It gives me the opportunity to pass on information and thoughts I have to a younger generation.”

For Thornton, a chance meeting with the general at a local restaurant led to an educational opportunity. As a teacher, she wanted to take advantage of having a subject-matter expert living next door.

“We’re talking about the Cold War,” she explained about her classes. “Why not have someone who could share his experience and first-hand account?”

The general, who moved to Camas when he retired to be near grandchildren, has given presentations at Wilsonville High School in Oregon but Friday was his first appearance at a Clark County high school. Thornton said she hopes he will return every year.

A 1960 high school graduate, McFarlin grew up in the early stages of the Cold War, right after World War II. At Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, McFarlin joined the Reserved Officers’ Training Corps. From there, it was a 30-year military career that saw him rise to the ranks of a general officer. He was in Vietnam in the 1960s. Later, he was stationed in South Korea — he reminded students that the Korean War technically is not over. It’s just a cease fire in effect for decades.

In Germany, the mission was clear. Protect the allies from an invasion.

“The Russians thought we were going to attack them. We thought they were going to attack us,” McFarlin said.

“The whole mission was to train and be ready to repel the Russians. Everybody was focused on being able to meet the Russians. Fortunately, we didn’t have to do it.”

The students in Thornton’s class had several questions, including how he joined the military, his opinion of Russia today, and if he had any regrets about his service.

The first question in his final class of the day was off-beat, and McFarlin was ready.

“How super cool are you?” a student asked.

“Just about as cool as you can get,” the general responded.

McFarlin was not necessarily considering a career in the military when he was arrived at Trinity College. It was after the second year of his ROTC training when he had to make his decision. His soon-to-be wife convinced him.

That three-year commitment during into a 30-year, 1-month career.

He reminded the students of all that has changed since he was their age, how Americans dealt with the Cold Ward on the home front.

He said his family did not have a television until he was in high school. Nobody had a computer. No internet. Americans got their news by reading newspapers, magazines, books and by listening to the radio.

Of course, that was a lot more information than Russians received. They only had state-run media.

“There was a big difference between what we thought was normal and what they thought was normal,” McFarlin said.

He noted the disaster drills students would have to perform, in case of an attack.

“An interesting time to be alive,” he said.

He touched on Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth.

“How did they get to space before us?” McFarlin said of the feelings of Americans.

While Americans wanted to beat the Soviet Union in the Cold War, he noted that Americans needed to change some of their ways, too.

He noted the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures” about African-American women helping in the Space Race.

“First, they were women. Women weren’t supposed to do that. Secondly, they were black. They weren’t supposed to be able to do that,” McFarlin said. “They did, and they could.”

The U.S. and the Soviet Union would continue to compete for world dominance but would never actually engage in military battles. At least not directly. There were what McFarlin called “spin-off” confrontations, or proxy wars. The Korean War and Vietnam, for example.

“Remember, it isn’t generals who decide to get into wars,” McFarlin told the students. “It’s the politicians.”

In Vietnam, he learned the value of service within the service. As a young officer, he was asked to share with the local government some of the benefits of the American infrastructure. Since Vietnam, he has visited more than 50 countries, always willing to aid citizens.

All Americans can do that, he said, whether they are in the military or not. The education afforded to students here can have an impact anywhere.

“You are going to be able, as citizens of our country, to provide information and assistance to others,” McFarlin told the students.

In fact, doing that with so many others through the years is the reason he never regretted making a career out of the military.

“I was serving with people who were there for the same reason I was — they wanted to serve the country,” he said.

And in all of his travels, whether in conflict, peace time, or the build-up during the Cold War, McFarlin said there is one thing that just about all people share.

He asked the students a direct question: What do your parents want for you?

The general answered for them.

“Education. Happy life,” he said.  “That’s common all around the world. They want that for their children, too.”

See this story at Clark County Today.