Jon Stewart and Kathleen Hicks
The War Horse Symposium’s keynote event was a conversation between comedian and veterans’ advocate Jon Stewart and current US deputy secretary of defense Kathleen Hicks. (Photography by MK Photo)
Lines of communication

Harris Public Policy hosted a day of conversations about the human side of serving our country.

Veterans, military families, and journalists have more in common than people realize, Thomas Brennan told the audience gathered in the Logan Center auditorium on April 6. “We are largely misunderstood by the communities that we serve,” he said. “And while it may be in different ways, we all play a vital role in our democracy.”

Brennan has had two careers, the first as a service member and the second as a reporter. After nearly 10 years in the US Marine Corps, he began writing for the Daily News in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Today he’s the founder and executive director of the War Horse, a nonprofit news organization that covers the “human impact of military service” and offers writing seminars for veterans and military spouses.

The daylong War Horse Symposium aimed to bridge misunderstandings and highlight journalistic contributions to public policy and civic engagement. Speakers included military experts—veterans, military spouses, current and former leaders in the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, and policymakers—and reporters. The symposium concluded with a conversation between comedian Jon Stewart, an advocate for veterans’ issues, and deputy defense secretary Kathleen Hicks.

The first seeds of the symposium were planted when the War Horse conducted a survey of its readers, including military leadership and reporters who have covered the military. David Chrisinger, AM’10, who directs the writing program at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and leads the War Horse’s writing seminars, realized the data offered a rare glimpse into the relationship between the military and the media. Along with then graduate students Ellie Vorhaben, MPP’22, and Graham Harwood, MPP’23, Chrisinger wrote a white paper outlining the survey’s themes. They found a serious decline in military coverage, as well as deep mistrust of the media inside the military.

The divide wasn’t always so stark. At the symposium, Associated Press vice president and Gulf War Marine veteran Ron Nixon remembered starting his journalism career at a newspaper where the publisher was also a Marine veteran and his editor was a World War II Navy veteran. Today, “what you’ve got … is a general lack of knowledge about military veterans, the military itself, and the veteran community,” Nixon said—a gap that, in combination with the decimation of the news industry, has resulted in less coverage and lower-quality coverage.

In one discussion, former Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, admitted he started out as one of those inexperienced reporters. “I had never covered major military operations before. In all honesty, I often confused an Army captain with an Army colonel,” he said, prompting knowing laughs from the audience. The wars brought about a short-lived but significant investment in military coverage, but now, “the resourcing has largely evaporated.”

The lack of attention has consequences; thoughtful coverage, Nixon noted, provides needed oversight of a $1 trillion government line item. In 2017 the War Horse and the investigative podcast Reveal released a series of reports about a secret Facebook group in which male Marines shared nude photos of servicewomen, resulting in disciplinary actions and policy changes within the Department of Defense.

Such accountability is especially important at a time when the military is struggling with “a no-kidding recruitment crisis,” said Michèle Flournoy, former under secretary of defense for policy and current board chair of the Center for a New American Security. Addressing gender and race discrimination in the military today increases the likelihood that more women and people of color will serve in the future.

Investigative reporting also brought to light the problem of open-air burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2008 Kelly Kennedy, then a writer for the Military Times, first reported on the widespread use of burn pits to destroy waste on military bases—leading to serious health issues for service members exposed to the toxic smoke. Iraqi and Afghan civilians, too, have suffered from the exposure.

Marine Corps and Air Force veteran Dan Clare, who brought Kennedy damning early evidence of the problem, told the audience her track record gave him confidence “she wasn’t going to let go of the story, either, and she hasn’t.” Kennedy’s work, along with the advocacy of supporters like Stewart, resulted in the 2022 passage of the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act, which expands Veterans Affairs health care for veterans exposed to toxic chemicals.

Secretary of veterans affairs Denis McDonough said he saw the new legislation as a central responsibility. “All of this is not extra credit, caring for people who were exposed to toxins in Iraq. It’s not an optional exercise,” he said. He also hopes the PACT Act will help veterans address other health needs: “The PACT Act might be the reason you come in, but your whole health, your wellness, hopefully will be the reason you stay.” To that end, McDonough said, the administration knows it needs to accelerate its hiring of mental health professionals—a critical area of need.

The psychological impact of military service on service members and their families is profound, said Valerie Suttee, whose husband spent 35 years in the Marines. Suttee attended a War Horse writing seminar for military spouses, and the article that came out of that experience, she said, allowed her to reflect on the common tropes and labels applied to families like hers. Portrayals of service members as heroes and their spouses as saints belie the complexity and trauma of their experiences. “The term ‘resilience’ gets tossed around a lot in these venues,” she said. “When you label someone as being resilient and they don’t feel like they’re resilient, it causes a real problem.”

Derek Moore, a captain in the Ohio Army National Guard, sought to explain this less-understood branch of the military. With both state and federal missions, the Guard is best known for mobilizations during domestic emergencies like natural disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic, border security, and civil disturbances. Recalling the recent injury of nine National Guard soldiers in Syria, Moore said, “People don’t realize that those are Ohio soldiers, those are Michigan soldiers, those are South Carolina soldiers. … Right now the majority of the people that are actually serving in the Middle East are National Guard soldiers.”

Much coverage of the military is negative, Moore observed, and many people—including journalists—have misconceptions about the lives of service members. His urging was simple but clear: “Please tell our story.”