Veteran and journalist perseveres to launch news startup ‘The War Horse’

warhorse2There was a class during his time at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, in which Thomas Brennan had tears in his eyes.

Anne Hull was the reason.

Hull, co-author of a Washington Post story chronicling neglect of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center was speaking to his class.

“I remember reading that story when I was on active duty. I had not gone to Afghanistan and been wounded yet. I had not enrolled in any therapies or treatments or whatnot,” Brennan said.

Eventually, he did need treatment. The Marine Corps veteran was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and when injured in combat was awarded a Purple Heart. He suffered traumatic brain injury and coped with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He remembered her story at that time, a story that stuck with him ever since.

“I hugged her. I cried in class. Her story to this day means the world to me, and I finally got to tell her to her face,” he said. “That’s the kind of journalism that I hope we publish. It’s stuff that matters to someone.”

Brennan took that hope and created The War Horse, which, according to its website, will be “the trusted authority on post-9/11 conflict by sharing on-the-ground, personal perspectives from those who were there and those who waited patiently behind.”

“I would like this at a minimum to be a digital magazine of trustworthy journalism that will explore war and trauma to a depth and precision that other newsrooms will be inspired to follow,” he said. “One story can make an incredible impact on the world. Journalism has brought down some of the most powerful people that have existed, it’s also told stories of the most repressed and I hope to be able to explore both ends of that spectrum.”

To get The War Horse off the ground, Brennan turned to Kickstarter and raised $53,300 from 526 backers, surpassing his goal by $3,000. While ultimately successful, the campaign wasn’t without it’s ups and downs. A fast start and a large donation had The War Horse halfway towards its goal by the mid-point, but after nine days of fundraising, the New York Times ran an article alleging misspending by the veteran’s charity, the Wounded Warrior Project.

“The Wounded Warrior Project story threw me off. That was not something I thought would happen. It’s not something that I had prepared as a possibility to happen,” Brennan said. “We pretty much stayed at the halfway mark for almost a week.”

The campaign gained momentum with five days to go, he said, leading to funds that will tell stories like the one about Javier Ortiz-Rivera, who Brennan served with in 2010 in Afghanistan. It’s one of the first stories The War Horse will publish and includes Ortiz-Rivera’s young son, Anthony.

“I asked him all about his dad, what does he miss? What does he wish he could tell him. Every question that a journalist could ask in the book,” Brennan said “And every time it was just boom, boom, boom. He would just answer, answer, answer. Anything I asked of him he wanted to make sure I knew it about his dad. At the very end of it he started crying. Absolutely nothing wrong with that, he earned it.”

Brennan then told Ortiz-Rivera he served with his father in Afghanistan, which lead to a moment that would inspire the creation of The War Horse.  

“Then he ran over to me and hugged me and he said, ‘I don’t care what anybody else says to you, thank you for trying to make sure people know about my dad.’”

“He was glad somebody cared enough to tell his story about how he feels about his father.”

This is not the first project to tell stories from a veteran’s point of view to accomplish much with crowdfunding.

Capturing bylines from Buzzed to Yahoo to CBS, the Veteran Vision Project, completed in February 2015, raised more than $70,000 for unique photos of veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

You can read more about Brennan’s experience with war on The New York Times At War Blog and a Q&A Brennan did with Poynter.

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Joe Proudman
Joe is a filmmaker and multimedia journalist based in Davis, Calif.

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