In one moment, an unexpected phone call cemented my decision to transition from jarhead to journalist. That day, I answered my phone and a fellow Marine said, “Because of your story, I didn’t kill myself.”
Like that Marine, I served in Iraq. I grew up in the suburbs of Boston and enlisted in the infantry. He was an Iraqi immigrant turned military linguist who served in Iraq. I served in Afghanistan, where a rocket-propelled grenade led to my medical retirement. He left active duty and came home to a battle with his family, which left him feeling conflicted about his military service.
Our lives and wars were worlds apart. I was part of the killing. He wasn’t. Marines in my platoon were put in body bags. His weren’t. Yet both of us felt that suicide was the answer. But while I tried to kill myself, he didn’t. Because of a story I’d published about my suicide attempt in The New York Times.
More than any moment after leaving active duty, I felt I had made a difference. That I’d saved a life.
When I began working as a reporter at The Jacksonville Daily News in North Carolina in 2013, I didn’t realize I would be one of its last full-time military reporters covering Camp Lejeune, the second-largest Marine Corps base in the world and home to more than 135,000 service members, veterans, and their families. During my two years in the newsroom, I felt like I was losing an uphill battle and experienced firsthand how dying local news ecosystems and national coverage lacking context negatively impacts military communities.
I reported on the first women to attend Marine infantry training and covered a struggling Veterans Administration health care system. I profiled dozens of World War II veterans and wrote about base schools and homelessness. I highlighted stories of resilience — military families overcoming trauma and loss. Stories about veterans redefining their purpose in society after taking off their military uniform for the last time. And stories about the civilians joining forces with veterans and military families to bridge the military and civilian divide.
But with each passing story, and as I watched my newsroom contract further, I felt hopeless that I could publish the volume of reporting that could lead to a broader awareness of the issues faced by veterans and military families across the United States. Health care failures and toxic exposure. Rising rates of suicide. And feeling more disconnected from their fellow Americans than ever before. Simultaneously, the Defense Department predicted that the growing military and civilian divide posed a grave threat to national security and the health of the all-volunteer military force.
Over the last decade, I’ve watched as the military and civilian divide has been exacerbated by a decline in the depth, fluency, and volume of coverage about military service. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and as the DOD and VA budgets rose more than $1 trillion — nearly half of all US spending and more than twice what it spends on health care, education, infrastructure, and diplomacy combined — reporting about the military made up less than 5 percent of all news coverage.
The problem is worsening, and military reporters are being driven from the industry in droves. In 2020 alone, the Military Times conglomerate decimated its staff with sweeping cuts. Atlantic Media divested the magazine Defense One. Task & Purpose was sold to a hedge fund. Stars and Stripes was nearly defunded by the Department of Defense. And The New York Times, one of the most profitable newspapers in the world, discontinued its award-winning At War blog. Further compounding the problem, many leading journalism organizations like the Pew Research Center do not track military reporting as part of their content analysis.
As Americans, we have a long tradition of relying on journalists to relay the realities of military service, however, since 9/11, Columbia Journalism Review found that “political drama is far more likely to make the front page than anything to do with the military.” This declining public awareness of military and veterans issues negatively impacts positive social change and stifles collective efforts to improve the quality of life for veterans and military families.
But most important, without a broader public awareness of what veterans and military families are experiencing, citizens and elected officials are unlikely to make informed decisions about national policies at home and abroad.
In a white paper that will be released on April 6 at The War Horse Symposium, researchers at the Harris School of Public Policy explored the intersection of the media and the military and civilian divide, using survey data The War Horse collected from more than 300 leaders in national security, media, academia, and myriad organizations serving veterans and military families. The findings were stark.
The first-of-its-kind research, which is being championed by Bob Woodward and Jon Stewart, found that nearly 95 percent of respondents felt the media landscape does not report on veterans and military families in a way that fosters understanding and connection with the general public. Two-thirds of people surveyed reported that the current media landscape widens the military and civilian divide, and 70 percent said a lack of reporting threatens the ability to maintain an all-volunteer military force, a concern reinforced by the ongoing recruiting and retention crisis. More than 90 percent of respondents said the declining military reporting ecosystem threatens US national security.
When the military might of our nation exists unchecked and unexamined by local and national newsrooms, our fundamental assumptions of how our democracy functions in our daily lives, in our communities, and our place in the world are threatened. The military, which primarily operates in opacity and secrecy, answers to the citizens of the United States only when neighbors and leaders understand the true cost of military service.
When Americans collectively ask how a trillion-dollar enterprise, funded by the blood and treasure of the wealthiest nation on earth, can be so opaque to the people it was created to serve, the answer is journalism. More than ever, our democracy demands muscular journalism written by energetic, broadly educated reporters who possess the resources and power to explore big ideas for making the military and the world a better place.
Thomas J. Brennan is the founder and executive director of The War Horse, a nonprofit newsroom focused on military service.
Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is considering self-harm or suicide, please call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. You may also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, or text HOME to 741741.