Veteran launches 'The War Horse' to tell stories of Iraq, Afghanistan

Cindy Schepers | The War Horse

Cindy Schepers | The War Horse

One Marine veteran is on a mission to make sure the war stories of his generation are told — and told right.

Thomas Brennan, a medically retired sergeant-turned-journalist, is preparing for the launch of The War Horse, an independent journalism site dedicated to chronicling the effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The website brands itself “the authority on the post-9/11 conflict and the ONLY digital magazine profiling all men, women, interpreters, and dogs killed since 9/11.”The idea for the site came to Brennan while he was working as a staff writer for The Daily News out of Jacksonville, North Carolina, a town adjacent to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.

“It all started with me getting aggravated that stories weren’t being gathered about World War II vets and World War I vets and we’ve waited so long to tell the stories of years prior,” Brennan, 30, told Military.com. “War has been a constant in human existence since the very beginning, and I just think it’s about time that we really report on it and understand and conceptualize everything that war is.”

Brennan is in a unique position to tell those stories, as someone who has experienced the realities of war as a Marine and who has reported on the military as a civilian. Brennan served nearly nine years in the Marine Corps as an infantry assaultman before retiring in 2012. On Nov. 1, 2010, Brennan was wounded on a deployment to Afghanistan when a rocket-propelled grenade detonated next to him. He was diagnosed with a mild traumatic brain injury, and has since also documented his struggles with post-traumatic stress.

He began freelancing for The New York Times’ At War blog while still in uniform, documenting his medical appointments, his combat memories, and even, wrenchingly, of his suicide attempt in November 2013 as he battled war wounds and feelings of worthlessness.

In 2014, determined to hone his craft as a writer, he enrolled in the investigative program at Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

“I like to think that [The War Horse] is my master’s thesis that I was working on,” Brennan said. “I used everything up there to my advantage.”

Brennan envisions his project as a collaboration of freelance writers and photographers to produce long-form stories about veterans complete with photographs and multimedia elements. He has assembled a board of advisers including Bruce Shapiro, director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia, and Kevin Cullen, a journalist and columnist at the Boston Globe and Pulitzer Prize recipient.

The Institute for Nonprofit News is assisting him with the administrative elements of running a startup. To fund the first phase of his site, he is launching a Kickstarter campaign in early 2016 aimed at raising $50,000. That money will fund the first four long-form stories and assist with grant-writing and development to allow the website to grow, Brennan said.

Early stories on the site will focus on redefining intimacy after genital mutilation from war, military sexual trauma, and the military awards system, among other topics, he said. Brennan is also planning a special project on Marine veteran Kyle Carpenter, who received the Medal of Honor in 2014.

In addition to the works of journalism, the site will also feature a compilation of multimedia profiles for all US personnel killed in combat since Sept. 11, 2001. Called the Echoes Project, it will also provide an opportunity for those who knew the fallen service members to share stories about them.

While good reporting on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and those who fought in them already exists, Brennan said his background and goals may give troops and veterans more confidence to come forward and tell their stories.

“I think the one common thread that I bring to the table is I know the fear that exists [among troops] when it comes to approaching journalists,” he said. “Having people who are personally involved in these different worlds is going to open up the possibilities.”

Learn more about the project at http://www.thewarhorse.org/

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