Serving as the Family Historian: An Interview with Robert R. Heath Sr.

Stories about family are what I write about, so Growing Up Army: The story of a soldier, his loving wife, and their nine adventurous Army Brats traveling the world in service to our country intrigues me. The author, Robert R. Heath Sr., is a Warren Publishing author whose debut memoir released last August. One reviewer said that “the author . . . does an excellent job of weaving American history into their family story as their moves coincide with world events. Whether you have a military background or not, this book of true family stories is a fun read!” It’s a book full of humor and heart, one that military families and everyone else should read.

Welcome, Bob!

Christina: Congrats on the publication of Growing Up Army, which recounts your “time growing up as the third of nine Army Brats and learning that survival comes in many shapes and sizes.” Clearly, we know what inspired the book, but what drew you to memoir in particular? Did you ever think about fictionalizing the story?

Bob: Thank you, Christina. There are several factors involved in how this played into being an historical memoir. First, I will say that I never considered fictionalizing our story. A lot of that could be that my favorite reading genre has always been about historical events and people. Along with that, my undergraduate major was English with a minor in history. Then, add that we grew up in many places around our world that had experienced historically significant events before or shortly after we arrived. But, did we know anything about those historical events while growing up? No, we did not. Our parents never shared those kinds of things with us. I’m not certain just how much they knew, or if they felt it was better for us not to know about them.

Our Dad served in WWII, but, other than the fact that he had been wounded somewhere in France, we knew nothing about his time in the war. This, plus recognizing that our family (parents and two kids) were in Japan just a year and a half after Japan’s surrender in WWII, instigated my need to look into the history of the time leading up to our arrival there. That was closely followed by looking into our time in Taiwan, five years after Chiang Kai-shek and 2 million Chinese fled from the Communists in China. Then, there was Germany—we were there one month before the Berlin wall was built. After that, South Carolina one month after the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress, allowing the integration of schools.

So, what about Dad and WWII? I was able to get copies of the daily Morning Reports for Dad’s unit from the National Archives in Maryland—for every single day of Dad’s time in the war, including the report that described the attack in which Dad was wounded. Obtaining access to this detailed information about Dad’s entire experience in WWII was exciting for me.

There’s more. Much of the book involves fun, adventurous and scary stories about our times all over the place as well as stories about Mom and Dad growing up in the Depression and their romance. All of this got inspired a little more than 20 years ago at our annual family Thanksgiving gathering. Several of us were outside having fun and laughing, and one of our brothers told a crazy story of something he did in Taiwan. That inspired more stories while we all laughed hysterically. After that, I got with each of my siblings and got as many stories as they could remember. I wrote them all and put them in a hard-cover homemade book and sent a copy to each sibling and Mom and Dad. This inspired Mom, now in her mid-80s, to write her story. Again, I typed it up, put it in a homemade hard cover book, and sent copies to everyone.

When it finally came time to put all of this together in a real book, there wasn’t any thought about it being anything other than the historical memoir that it is. The bottom line? It’s not just my story; it’s our story, and one that our children, grandchildren and beyond will have.

Christina: When did you first think about writing the book? What made you finally decide to write and pursue publishing?

Bob: Putting all of this together as a book had been rolling around in my mind for several years after getting all the stories from family members, and I began doing the research on the historical factors related to our travels. Finally, in 2019, I retired for the third and final time and was determined to write the book. As I was putting it all together, and since this was my first book, I was looking around at publishing options to determine the best route to go. I looked into self-publishing and have a friend who has done that. I checked out sending it to a publisher and had conversations with a couple of friend/authors who went that route. Their books didn’t sell well, and they no longer had any option about dealing with it, since the publisher now owned all rights to their books. Ultimately, I learned about hybrid publishing, where an author pays the publisher for the professional editing and publishing of the book, but retains all rights to the book. That was the option that appealed to me the most.

I was introduced to Warren Publishing, a hybrid publisher, through a friend who had published with them. I submitted my completed draft, and they accepted it. That turned out to be the perfect route to take in getting a professionally edited version of Growing Up Army published. Not only did I retain complete ownership of the book, but I also had the final word in all edits that were recommended. There were times when that was important. Along with those factors, Warren also provided getting the books printed as well as marketing.

Christina: Readers love to know about an author’s writing and revision practices. What are yours?

Bob: My writing practices involves. first, preparation. What do I want to write about? Obviously, this book is about what it was like for myself and my siblings to grow up traveling the world. How did it come about that we were doing that? That brought out things about who our parents are, how they grew up, and what factors in life led Dad into the army.

An amazing event that happened as I was just in the beginning phases of putting the book together, was one day when I was visiting Mom and talking to her about the book. She got up from the table and said, “Wait a minute,” and went back to her bedroom. She came out and put a box in front of me and said, “You’re all going to see these when I die, so you might as well have them now.”  The box was full of love letters between Mom and Dad while they were dating and he had been drafted; Mom’s 1942 high school yearbook, full of statements from her classmates about what an amazing student she was; every one of Dad’s assignment orders during his time in the army;  and number of other interesting documents. Not one member of the family had EVER seen any of this!  It was overwhelmingly amazing. Many quotes from those letters are in the book, as well as other information I would never have known about.

Secondly, how much of the history of the places we lived did I need to include in the book? How much would or would not be of interest to readers? This was a tough one, especially the chapters about Dad’s time in WWII!  I wrote this out in very detailed fashion, then had a couple of non-family friends read it. To them it dragged on and wasn’t very enjoyable, so I did a major revision, removing lots of details and personalizing it as much as I could. I kept information about his unit’s movements and what was going on around them.

What is the order of things that will appear in the book? I needed these to be carefully laid out, which required that I work through each and every story provided by my siblings and all of Mom’s stories, organizing them so that they followed the timeline of our travels, but also that they added fun and excitement to the story of our lives.

For whom am I writing the book? I took a fairly broad look at that question. First, of course, was family. Second would be military “brats” who had similar experiences in terms of traveling, changing schools frequently, living in foreign countries and so forth. Third could be those who are, or have served in the military, and finally, those who enjoy reading historical memoirs.

I began writing Growing Up Army in third person, but after going through a few revisions, I reverted to primarily writing in first person. This read much more personal, and I felt it became more interesting.

As far as revisions go, I find that I can’t read a chapter without making revisions – no matter how many times I’ve read it before. I read and revised each and every chapter at least ten times, if not more. And then it went to Warren’s professional editors who did a terrific job of helping to make everything flow and read well. As they worked through the chapters and sent me editing recommendations, I would then make the recommended changes, or have a conversation with the editor about some options.

Another thing about writing is that you must write. I developed this habit when I was writing my dissertation. I wrote daily—every single day without fail. There were many times when I would come home from work, tired and not want to write, but I did. And each day, once I got into it, I would write for at least a couple hours. I have a friend who tells me he has “writer’s block.” I personally find that the best way to combat that is, well, guess what? Write!  If you have writer’s block, just sit down and write something related to wherever you think the book might go. When you go back and read that, you’ll revise it and ultimately work through the block. That is what has worked for me.

While I wasn’t as driven by the same need to complete this work as I was my dissertation, I was driven by a very important, different need to complete it: Mom was in her late nineties, and I very much wanted her to have the book in her hands before she passed. She did.

Christina: How has your family received the book? Did any of them serve as beta readers?

Bob: Every time I completed a chapter—or a re-write of one—I made copies for my Mom and each and every one of my siblings. Each of them was invited to serve as a beta reader in that I asked them for feedback about accuracy, any grammar/spelling kinds of issues, and so forth. From time to time one or more would let me know of something they wanted changed, or another story they remembered, and so forth.

The receipt of Growing Up Army by all members of the family (all of my siblings and each of their children received copies of the published book) has been overwhelming. They all love it and are incredibly thankful that it has been written. They have dubbed me the “family historian.” I couldn’t be more proud than to serve my wonderful family in this way.

Christina: Memoir relies on truth, so what was your writing process like? How did you make sure you adhered as closely to your truth as possible?

Bob: A lot of this has to do with a significant level of preparation. Before putting the book together, I went over all of the stories from siblings and Mom and asked them to clarify anything that wasn’t especially clear to me.

As far as the historical aspects of the book, I read several different resources for each thing I wanted to know and selected the one, or ones, that I concluded were the most accurate regarding the information I wanted. I included a long list of reference notes to help assure readers of the accuracy of that information. I was meticulous in that regard, because that kind of thing is very important to me.

Also, because we had no information regarding Dad’s time in WWII, I used the daily Morning Reports I received from the National Archives in Maryland. These reports were recorded each day by a soldier and approved by an officer in the unit. As I put those chapters together, I compared the reports with historical descriptions of the movements of Allied and Axis forces and found that they matched very closely. This also brought to my attention that Dad’s unit was largely several weeks or months behind the heavy action during the war. Sicily and France were the most significant in terms of their proximity to the fighting.

In terms of truth regarding family information, all stories are the truth that each sibling and our Mom recalled and shared with me. That’s not to say there aren’t any exaggerations or missing details in any of the stories, but I believe they are largely true. Each of them was encouraged to read every story, and were asked to let me know of anything that didn’t read correctly or any detail that wasn’t accurate. Those were all corrected by me and sent to them for approval.

Christina: Nine children! How did that number feel to you: exactly right, too few, or too many? And while one can’t help where one lands in birth position, did you find any advantages or disadvantages to being born third of nine?

Bob: I have been asked that a lot. For me and my siblings, it just was what it was. In the end, I believe each one of us would say, “It was exactly right!”  One big advantage of growing up the way we did, as a member of a large family, was that when we moved—every one-to-three years—we had to leave our friends behind. But we didn’t have to leave our family of sibling-friends. We always had “us” to play and hang out with until we made new friends. From conversations I have had with other “brats” from small families, moving and leaving friends was really difficult. When I compare those conversations with those of my siblings, our big family always made our moves much easier for us.

For me, as number three of nine, I think it was useful to have two older siblings who I could look up to for guidance in life. I’ve heard that expressed by some of my younger siblings, too. Our only sister, who is fifth, never missed a beat in terms of being one of the kids. In addition, she was right in the middle—four older brothers (Little Princess) and four younger brothers (Little Mama). She loved both roles and never missed out on any of our adventures along the way. She was also the only sibling who had her own room—except when there was a newborn in the family.

The youngest, who was born seven years after his just older brother, didn’t get to experience “army brat life” like the rest of us. He was born in Germany, but at two years old, we moved to South Carolina, and that’s where he grew up once Dad retired a couple years later. He grew up in the same house, going to the same schools from third grade on. Very different. That said, he is adamant that he is an army brat.

One more quick quip! When brat number six was in ninth grade in Augusta, Georgia, his psychology teacher decided she was going to identify all of the students in the class who were the only child in the family, based on behavioral traits that she had observed. Jim was chosen as one of those “only” children.

Christina: You served as an educator for many years. Did your experiences with your family steer you in the direction of education? What lessons did you learn from your family that you applied to your career? And what lessons from education did you use to inform your writing?

Bob: This is a very good, complex and somewhat funny question. Yes, Mom went to one-room schoolhouse teacher college for a year or so but didn’t teach (other than us from time to time). So there wasn’t really any motivation for me regarding her experience. I wasn’t a particularly motivated student, since Dad let us know early on that Cs were okay on a report card. “After all,” he said, “the world is average, Cs are average, so that’s ok.”

Then, upon graduation from high school, while at dinner with my parents and my girlfriend and her parents, she and I were talking about going to college. She had been accepted to Winthrop College in Rock Hill, South Caroline, and I had been accepted to the University of South Carolina in Columbia. My Dad looked over at me and said, not quietly, “Bob, you’re not college material. Don’t ask me for any money for college.” This story is in the book, but I’ll abbreviate it here. Dad, a sergeant in the army, with nine kids, didn’t have money to help anyone with college, so that part of the statement was immaterial. In addition, my girlfriend, after Dad’s remark, quickly decided that we should break up.

The other part of Dad’s remark, well, here’s how that went: Right after graduating, I moved away from home to a $50/mo. apartment near the university that I shared with two high school friends. I had a part time job at the new Pizza Hut in town. I also discovered a bar near the university that was highly frequented by college girls. And me. At the end of my first, very “not college material” semester, I was placed on one-semester probation by the university. I worked, saved enough money, and went back to school after my probation was over. Unfortunately, none of my college-student habits had changed. Now, I had two years’ probation imposed upon me by the school. During those two unsuccessful semesters, I declared myself a business major, following in my very successful, older brother’s footsteps. To be clear, Mom nor Dad ever had any conversations with us about thinking over what we wanted to do in life, so I was generally clueless.

With two “gap” years imposed upon me and the Vietnam war heating up, I had several serious decisions to make. I got married to my girlfriend to whom I had been introduced by my oldest brother, and I joined the Navy in an effort to avoid ground-combat in Vietnam. My navy time was to be two years reserve duty, two years active, then two more reserve. Immediately after boot camp I volunteered to go ahead with the active duty to get it out of the way and wound up spending my entire two years in Charleston, SC, driving a submarine division commodore around. Also while there, my first child was born. Add these factors together:  two gap years imposed by the U.; marriage and fatherhood; military service = a much more mature individual.

Immediately after completing my Navy active duty, I re-enrolled at U.S.C. as an English major (always my favorite subject in H.S.) with a history minor and completed my B.A. in three years while working a full-time job. While working on that degree, I discovered that U.S.C. had a unique program in which I could earn my undergraduate degree, then go directly into a doctoral program. This is where the prospect of teaching became of interest to me, as I thought teaching at a university would be a great career. But, the need to get a real job and earn a living to support my family required that I put off the doctorate for the time being. I got a job teaching English and history, and over time earned a masters, then a doctorate degree. I became a school principal, then ultimately a college professor.

The fact is, Dad was accurate in determining that I wasn’t college material at the time he said it. But I grew up and overcame that truth.

Lessons learned that I applied to my career:  Number one on that list is, don’t judge people, especially young ones too early in life. This was very important as a middle school principal, and something that I shared frequently with teachers. Next, and this was impressed upon me by how Dad handled things—the worse the situation was, the calmer he was in dealing with it. I recognized that trait in myself during several very intense incidents in my schools.

Finally, and I don’t know if this came from family specifically, but I had a strong need to work collaboratively with faculty and parents in determining the direction of the schools where I was principal. In fact, collaborative decision making was the subject of my doctoral dissertation. It became how I worked, and was a highly successful methodology for making important improvements.

Lessons from my career that informed my writing:  after a good bit of consideration about this part of the question, I can only conclude that my background in English and history combined with my career of getting things done were the primary contributing factors. As far as how it informed my writing, I can say that, as a middle school principal of 21 years, I mostly found the uninhibited craziness of middle schoolers a lot of fun and in many ways their craziness reminded me of how I and my siblings ran crazily uninhibited and free in many different places around our world.

Christina: What’s next for you?

Bob: As things stand right now, I’m doing everything I can to promote Growing Up Army. I’m retired and recently bought a motor home, which has me looking forward to getting on the road. It’s possible that could include a book store tour along the way, which could be fun. I don’t have any current plans regarding another book, but that could change at some point. After serving as an educator for thirty-seven years, I’m mostly focused on enjoying life, and writing/publishing Growing Up Army has been a very significant “labor of love” for me.

Another part of enjoying retired life for me is hiking here in the North Carolina mountains. I’m a member and Saturday hike coordinator for a hiking club with a very active, fun group of hikers. I do a hike or two with the club every week, then additional hikes with my very significant girlfriend and our sweet Bluetick Coonhound dog, Indi. Indi loves to hike and gets very excited anytime she hears us getting dressed to hike. We typically get in fifty to seventy miles on the trails every month and love it.

Robert can be found in multiple places!
Instagram: @BratBob3of9
Facebook: @BratBob3of9

Thanks to Robert for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author or artist who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.


  1. Robert R. Heath, Sr. on March 19, 2024 at 6:27 pm

    Thank you so much, Christina! Great questions, and brought many things I haven’t thought about prior to responding to them.

    • Christina Consolino on March 23, 2024 at 12:58 pm

      Thank you for participating!

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