A middle-aged man unfulfilled with his desk job at a veteran support agency gets the chance of a lifetime to make a real impact in the lives of struggling veterans in the novel “De Facto Pathfinder” by author and retired Army officer CW3 Cesare Giannetti (“Back to Serve: Return of a Soldier”).
Chris Longo is a man in need of a vision quest. Two decades ago, he served in the Army for five years as a field artilleryman; now, he drives a desk at a dull office job for the Oklahoma state-run Veteran Support Agency (VSA). He quits his job with the intention of finding his true path in life, as well as to spend more time with his estranged 15-year-old daughter, Sara. But when his former employee and the Department of Defense (DoD) reach out with a job offer in a new veterans’ assistance pilot program, Chris leaps at the opportunity to travel the country and spend quality time with fellow veterans in need.
The specific task is to meet with six U.S. military veterans of varying ages and backgrounds over a six-month span, spending a month getting to know them and their problems. At the end of the trip, a report will summarize his findings with the DoD. Giannetti captures the true “regular guy” in Chris, who feels unqualified to help but is assured his ability to listen and empathize while at the VSA marks him as the prime candidate. Though fearful his six months away from home will further strain things with Sara, Chris decides to take the job as “an opportunity for him to grow … but also for their relationship to somehow improve if he could somehow improve himself, as well.” Complicating his emotions even more is Jessie, his ex-wife, who gives off confusing signals as to a rapprochement.
Before setting off on his first case assignment, Chris suggests a name for his as-yet-untitled position with the DoD — the “De facto Pathfinder.” His nervousness is palpable: “What if I don’t connect with the veterans? Or what if I cause them more harm than good?” he wonders. Despite his uncertainties, Chris commits to his role as a pathfinder for those looking for a way back, leaning into the experience with a full heart, open mind, and a listening ear.
What follows is a poignant, picturesque triptych of a novel as Chris travels to Alaska to spend time with a homeless Vietnam veteran named Til. Over their month together, Til opens up to Chris as they attend the annual Iditarod sled dog race and experience the “occult beauty” of the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. Giannetti’s dialogue is concise and realistic; the veterans Chris meets are indeed damaged, and it is reflected to a heartbreaking degree in the stories they tell. To the author’s credit, Chris never has all the answers. Rather, he believes in the ability of these men and women to overcome.
From Alaska, Chris moves on to San Diego, New Orleans, Philadelphia, West Virginia, and the Great Lakes, meeting a diverse group of vets (and their families) who struggle to move past their individual traumas. Strengthened by nightly readings of a dog-eared copy of “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway, Chris is ready to meet — and hopefully help — each new veteran he enounters: Alex, a former Marine sergeant suffering from PTSD; Tashana, a former Coast Guard officer, wrestling with a past sexual assault and a hard-hearted father; Vincent, a former Army soldier battling alcoholism (and his mother, Linda, who Chris is unexpectedly drawn toward); Kyle, a former Air Force fighter pilot who lost his hands in a fiery crash; and Matthew, an active duty Navy base commander, terrified of his upcoming retirement.
Giannetti gives authentic voice and insights into each of these diverse characters (aided by his own years of service in the Army), and describes in vivid detail each region’s arts, architecture, cuisine, and historical and cultural importance. It is in their home setting that Chris learns the intrinsic gifts of each veteran and encourages them, while also learning about his own.
As the six-month program ends, the “De facto Pathfinder” will add six more friends to his life, find new love, and reconnect with his daughter in unexpected ways thanks to his journey. Giannetti’s novel is a heartwarming meditation on how other human beings are sometimes the best medicine for a hurting soul.
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