On October 16, 1944, Robert Perske turned 17, and like many other teenagers during World War II, he left high school early and joined the U.S. Navy. Several months later, he went ashore in Manila as a member of a small crew of amphibious radiomen who set up a port direction unit in the tower of a bombed out building on the pier street. From that tower, incoming ships were guided around sunken hulls and debris as they entered Manila Bay. Also from that vantage point, one could turn and look at all of the gutted buildings of downtown Manila.
The enemy's "scorched earth policy" had just been shut down. That policy ordered all enemy soldiers to hide in buildings and to shoot every person they could see before being shot to death themselves.
Perske never experienced the "thousand-yard" foggy stare that many other G.I.s suffered after moving from building to building during that awful suicide battle. So with the wide eyes of a teenager, he watched all of the critical human situations that appeared on Manila streets after the battle ended.
Little children with empty coffee cans gathered around garbage pails asking for the slop on mess trays that G.I.s did not eat. Priests crawled onto the rubble of the hospital in the Intramuros section, performing last rights over buried patients who had been blown up in their beds. Four orphaned kids were allowed to stay in the tents on the grounds of the destroyed Manila hotel. Little brothers walked the streets, selling the services of their sisters as prostitutes to get money and food for their families.
Later, while waiting to go home, Perske sat in a makeshift courtroom and watched the war crimes trial of General Masaharu Homma who was found guilty and executed.
Although Perske never wrote about these early critical human situations in the Philippine Islands, he is convinced that what he saw as a 17-and-18-year-old sharpened his sensitivities toward vulnerable persons with disabilities with whom he worked for most of his career. He also found that he could not speak as clearly about these painful situations as he wanted. In some cases, he tried so hard to describe them, he became mute in the process. Finally, he discovered that his best way of communicating came from anguishing over a specific situation and then writing words about it. This procedure led to his writing hundreds of articles and 16 books.
Early in his career, he served as a chaplain at Kansas Neurological Institute, an institution for 250 children and youth with intellectual disabilities. For eleven years, he worked long hours, trying to be the best pastor he could be to those kids.
Then, he joined volunteer organizations fighting to get persons with disabilities out of institutions and back into regular neighborhoods. During these community-based efforts, Perske slowly metamorphosed into becoming a street-court-and-prison worker with persons having intellectual disabilities who suddenly found themselves in big trouble with the law. For better tha 20 years, he has traveled the country, serving as a self-styled citizen advocate who befriended disabled clients and their lawyers and worked at being a trusted team member in these judicial frays.
Perske became the only non-lawyer to ever receive the American Bar Association's Paul Hearne Award for Services to Persons with Disabilities. It was awarded at ABA's annual convention in Washington, DC on August 12, 2002. Receiving the award was heartwarming – but delivering a formal 20-minute acceptance address to lawyers was petrifying. In his mind, he never felt equal to their stature and skill. Consequently, he finally wrote word-for-word how he likened himself to Gunga Din, Rudyard Kipling's, half-naked water boy who during pitched battles hurried here and there, giving drinks to every disabled soldier. Then he spent the rest of his address describing two courageous lawyers for persons with disabilities who mentored him and helped guide his efforts. The speech was entitled, "Observations of a Water Boy." It was published in Mental Retardation Magazine (February, 2003).
In the last few years, Perske has focused mostly on persons with disabilities who confessed to murders and rapes they did not commit – and later were exonerated.
Contact Bob Perske at email@example.com