Years Later, Loss at War Resonates at Home

Anthony was wearing pajamas. His knees bounced up and down as he sat cross-legged at his kitchen table. Between each scoop of Velveeta macaroni and cheese, he told me a little more about his father. We talked about nicknames – Papi and his Silly Rabbit – and Anthony’s plans to swing from the ceiling fans if his dad came home. He won’t. The Silly Rabbit placed his bowl and spoon inside the kitchen sink. “I hate war,” he said. Five years ago, when Anthony was three, his father, Javier Ortiz-Rivera, was killed in Afghanistan.

Courtesy of Veronica Ortiz Rivera

I served with Anthony’s father during our 2010 deployment to Afghanistan. I didn’t meet Anthony, his siblings, or their mother until Javier had died. My conversation with Anthony left him emotionally torn. He doesn’t remember his father, Anthony cried. Then he would force himself to stop, wiping his tears with his colorful sleeves. “Papi would want me to be strong for my mom.” He looked at her. She forced a smile.

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Anthony and his family are part of my reason for starting The War Horse – a digital magazine and community that will investigate war since 9/11 and the trauma it’s caused. Our Kickstarter campaign will launch on January 18, and raising a minimum of $50,000 will allow us to publish investigative journalism about the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs beginning in May 2016. The War Horse will also publish stories like that of Javier and his family’s – profiling all of the U.S. service members and interpreters killed since 9/11. Anthony’s father will be our first multimedia profile. Their family struggles to understand the affects of war the same as the rest of us – veteran and civilian. They struggle just like I do to understand the grip armed conflict has on those who wage war, those who oppose it, and those who support it.

Our global community is and continues to be ever more affected by war. Responsible and constructive conversation is more important than ever.

Courtesy of Veronica Ortiz Rivera

Thousands of children like Anthony have buried their mothers and fathers since 9/11. That loss of life can – and has for many people – become painful common ground. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have displaced millions of families fleeing conflict on their home soil.

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The Global War on Terror has cost the United States trillions of dollars, and instances of fraud run rampant among Defense Contractors. Politicians remain divided concerning whether and how to end military action and how to rethink foreign policy in an age of global war. Military and veteran suicides dwarf combat deaths, shattering the lives of people who thought that once their loved one was home everything would be OK. War doesn’t end at the U.S. border: Veterans struggle to navigate military retirement, cope with sexual trauma, and access healthcare within the VA.

Our nonpartisan storytelling will provide focus and clarity on conflicts that have been ongoing for nearly all of the 21st century, and will help address the divide between veterans and civilians. Our reporting won’t come without challenges. Aside from the cost, the DOD and VA have some of the longest wait times for Freedom of Information Act requests, or FOIA, filed by journalists. Many survivors aren’t ready to discuss war. That’s okay.

Courtesy of Veronica Ortiz Rivera

Some friends have joked with me that I’ve declared war on the DOD and VA. I haven’t. They’ve also asked if I have a death wish. I don’t. The DOD and VA serve their purposes. So does The War Horse. When Anthony looked at me before I left and thanked me for writing about his father, I realized exactly why I’m doing this: for the Anthonys. We owe it to future generations to begin trying to understand a hell they may one day be able to avoid. Conversation starts with your story.

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Thomas J. Brennan

Thomas is the founder and executive director of The War Horse. He served as an infantryman in Iraq and Afghanistan before studying investigative reporting at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. His reporting has appeared in Vanity Fair, Center for Investigative Reporting, and on the front page of The New York Times. Thomas has held fellowships at the Center for a New American Security, The Atlantic Council, and The George W. Bush Institute. Thomas's feature writing has been awarded by the Society for Features Journalism and the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. His investigative reporting has earned him both a national and regional Edward R. Murrow, two Fourth Estate Awards, and the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Journalism Award. He can be reached at

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