MIGHTY 25: Thomas Brennan built award-winning military newsroom
When Marine veteran Thomas Brennan had the idea to create The War Horse, the mission was simple. Ethical journalism steeped in integrity and an unwavering commitment to telling the stories of the military community without holding back. Seven extraordinary and award-winning years later, he’s just getting started.
Every good story has a beginning.
“My family and I joke that my Marine Corps career started or happened when my mom was rear-ended by a recruiter in a car accident,” he laughed.
Though that did happen, the truth is Brennan enlisted in the corps because of his grandfather’s stories of being turned down three times to become a Marine during World War II on account of being “too skinny.” Each time, he’d go home and eat as much as possible, only to be turned away.
Though his grandfather proudly joined the Navy to serve his country, his persistent dream to earn the Eagle, Globe and Anchor was one he’d shared with Brennan. Often.
When Brennan was ready to enlist, his mother, apprehensive with the ongoing wars, encouraged him to listen to all of the recruiters. Though he tried to honor his mother’s request fully, the Air Force recruiter wasn’t on that day and the thought of wearing the “cracker jacks” uniform of his grandfather’s service didn’t sit well with him. The Army was doing 14-month deployments and the response to that revelation by the recruiter was a "colorful no”, according to Brennan.
But when the Marine recruiter told him didn’t have what it took to make it, his decision was made. The Massachusetts native raised his right hand in 2003 and by 2004 was an Infantryman with First Battalion Eighth Marines on the frontlines for the second battle of Fallujah.
“The average American has no clue what combat and military service is like. Combat is the most exhilarating thing that I have ever experienced and I've never found any other adrenaline like that,” he explained. “There is a seductive nature that draws you back.”
Brennan served a full tour in Iraq and was subsequently assigned to the Marine Expeditionary Unit in 2006.
He was deployed to the Helmand Province in Afghanistan in 2010 as the Sergeant of the Third Platoon, Fourth Squad, Alpha Company, First Battalion, Eighth Marines. Two rocket-propelled grenades would knock him and three other Marines unconscious, causing a life-changing traumatic brain injury.
After returning home, he noticed the differences and struggles but tried to push them off. When he initially sought treatment for what he knew was PTSD and the eventual discovery of a TBI, the response from leadership wasn’t good, Brennan admitted.
“My transition out of active duty was not ideal. There were members of my chain of command who turned their back on me when I asked for help. Thankfully things have improved for others 10 years later,” he added.
In 2012, he was medically retired from the Marine Corps. Initially deeply resentful, Brennan explored opening a tattoo parlor or pursuing entrepreneurship opportunities. A therapist had suggested journaling during his treatment and writing had become a big part of his life. When a letter he wrote turned into a New York Times article, the match was lit.
“When I published my first story, I saw how it brought people from across the political spectrum; veterans, military families, and disconnected civilians. We were all coming to the story,” he shared. “It made me think that veterans and military families can be a middle ground to discussing so many of the issues in our country because we’re such a melting pot. I fell in love with writing and it removed that feeling of resentment.”
Brennan graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in Journalism and Small Business in 2014. A year later, he earned his Master of Investigative Journalism from Columbia University. Shortly after, The War Horse was born.
While the nonprofit newsroom may have started as a simple scribble in his notebook and a Kickstarter campaign, his first investigative story was anything but.
The males-only Marine Facebook group, Marines United, was invite only and was home to 30,000 members, including Brennan. In January of 2017, one Marine posted a Google Drive filled with various photos of female Marines in different stages of undress or completely nude, without their consent. The Marine then invited others to contribute to it and they did, one after another.
Brennan opened the drive and took screenshots of the folders which had been labeled with the women’s names and ranks, recognizing some. More suggestive photos continued to be uploaded and shared with accompanying suggestions and commentary to rape the woman in the photo.
He contacted Marine Corps headquarters immediately afterward and a day later, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service opened a formal investigation. The drive was shut down.
He took his investigation to the Pentagon with a binder of evidence but there didn’t appear to be much surprise on the faces of leadership at the briefing. When the story broke, he and his family received death threats and had to leave their home. Marine Corps leadership found themselves in deep water with Congress and there was a scramble to communicate a standing against what had happened to the women.
The Marines United report sent shockwaves across the military landscape and the mainstream news media made sure the story was front and center, unavoidable. It forced leadership to make significant changes to prevent behavior like that from continuing without true repercussions. It’s a change Brennan is extremely proud to have contributed to.
“When that was published, it resulted in a unanimous vote from the House of Representatives to criminalize revenge pornography in the military,” Brennan said. “We’ve changed federal policy and law with the reporting and investigations we’ve done.”
When Brennan isn’t taking on military issues with a relentless pursuit of truth – you can find the self-admitted foodie gardening, hiking with his family or woodworking. In between all that, he remains excited for the future of The War Horse.
“We’re really excited to start the launch of our reporting network of portable employment and job training for military spouses to essentially become our local reporters,” Brennan said. “We’ll bring them in for a master’s class on everything from FOIA, accessing public affairs and obtaining public records. The goal is to then partner with local and national newsrooms.”
Since 2016, The War Horse and Brennan have both received significant recognition for reporting and storytelling. He is the recipient of two Fourth Estate Awards, three Edward R. Murrow Awards, and the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Journalism Award.
“I see reporting as a way to look out for people who are still in uniform and try to ask the tough questions in order to make leadership think about the status quo or the best path forward,” Brennan shared.
In 2023, he was the first enlisted Marine recognized by the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation with the Lt. Gen. John A. Lejeune Award for Leadership.
“It’s all about bringing people together and a good example of that is our recent symposium hosted by John Stewart, the deputy secretary of defense and Bob Woodward. What was so special is that after the event, it was talked about on CNN, FOX News and people were suddenly talking and agreeing on the military budget,” Brennan explained. “Whether it’s Congress or the media as a whole, our work has brought people together and I’m really proud of that.”