Ex-Marine plans website devoted to War on Terror veterans

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/02/16/ex-marine-plans-website-devoted-to-war-on-terror-veterans/

Marine veteran Thomas Brennan’s road to launching The War Horse, an ambitious nonprofit news site dedicated to covering the military community, began with a therapy session.

In 2012, the Randolph native was struggling with a host of mental and physical ills following deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The combat injuries he sustained overseas as a sergeant with 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, left him with post-traumatic stress and aphasia, a communication disorder that made it difficult to work with a therapist.

The solution was simple: a notebook and a pen.

“When I joined the Marine Corps, I stopped writing. In hindsight I wished I’d kept a journal,” Brennan said. “Me getting wounded and my therapist giving me that notebook was the best thing that ever happened to me. When he did that, that was what put me on the path to journalism. I guarantee neither him nor I thought that would be the outcome, but that was the spark.”

While writing for a daily newspaper not far from Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Brennan began profiling local veterans of World War II. In the course of the project, several of his subjects died. Brennan said the deaths got him thinking.

“All these stories, all these human experiences, the lives of these men – I won’t argue if it was for better or worse – were changed by war,” he said. “They had an entire lifetime to think about it, but we’ve just lost it all.”

While attending Columbia University’s journalism program, Brennan said he still thought about those old soldiers and his own generation of veterans and hoped to create a nonprofit organization that would profile the men and women killed in action fighting wars and terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001. As he shared his idea at school, he became more ambitious. Brennan decided to incorporate an investigative journalism side to the project.

“Nonprofit journalism became a segue to get stories out there that matter, that need to be told about the VA and DoD,” he said, referring to the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Defense Department. At the same time, he envisions a site “where we are going to prove ourselves with the investigative journalism and the long-form features of military battles, acts of valor, war crimes or military sexual trauma, and we’re going to tell the stories of those who died as a result of the post-9/11 conflict.”

Now Brennan is looking for help to keep the ball rolling. The War Horse, which has received significant non-monetary donations from a variety of organizations and businesses, is trying to raise $50,000 through a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign.

As of late Tuesday, the campaign had raised more than $51,000, giving Brennan the funding he needs to cover grant writing. He said the organization needs to expand its donor base find grant dollars.

He hopes to formally launch the website on Sept. 11.

Brennan’s target audience can be found in every strata of American society. He wants the organization’s stories to appeal to civilians, veterans, lawmakers and others. While he admits there are other outlets that cover all-things defense – Brennan praised The Military Times and The Washington Post’s Checkpoint blog in particular – he does not see The War Horse as a competitor.

“It’s not like I’m trying to do the things that these people are already doing, but we’d be the first nonprofit investigative journalism outlet strictly focused on the VA and DoD,” he said, adding that he plans to share important documents dug up during investigations with other outlets.

“If I’m done with data, why shouldn’t I share that with other people?” he said. “That could be the missing piece of a puzzle for another story that needs to be told.”

The project has attracted other journalistic heavyweights, like Bruce Shapiro, director of Columbia’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and Finbarr O’Reilly, an award-winning photojournalist and former Reuters correspondent who had been embedded with Brennan’s unit. The Boston Globe’s Kevin Cullen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has also signed on to advise the project.

Brennan, Cullen said by email, “is very sincere about giving vets their say, not only because it’s the right thing to do but because their viewpoints will help policymakers in the future, and educate the public about war in a way unlike any other.”

Brennan enlisted in 2003 after meeting a Marine Corps recruiter in a local gym. Directionless and nearly finished with high school, he said he was looking for guidance.

He found it as an assault infantryman in the Corps.

Though military life was not always glamorous, Brennan opted to stay in uniform as long as possible.

“If you had asked me I was going to stay in the Marine Corps in my first two years I would have said, ‘hell no,’ but as time went on and I saw new Marines enlisting and joining, I felt the need to keep my experience around” and let the younger men and women draw on his knowledge, he said.

After two tours overseas, one in Iraq where he fought in Fallujah and the other in Afghanistan, Brennan’s medical issues forced him to leave the Corps in 2012.

His plans for The War Horse echo the reasons he stayed in the Corps: passing on the lessons of war as objectively as possible.

The website, Brennan said, is about “lessons learned and really to learn about the human experience. I am very hesitant to even remotely refer to this as a memorial because it suggests a bias; it suggests you’re trying to portray a certain image.”

“Good journalism will mean something different to everyone,” Brennan said.