Camp Lejeune veteran awarded for highlighting military life through nonprofit newsroom

The founder of nonprofit newsroom and former Jacksonville Daily News reporter has become the first Marine veteran to win the Gen. John A. Lejeune Award for Exceptional Leadership. 

Thomas Brennan is the founder of The War Horse, a nonprofit newsroom educating the public on military service. Brennan, who currently resides in Culpeper, VA, was stationed at Camp Lejeune for seven years before medically retiring 10 years ago and becoming a military reporter for The Daily News.  

He left The Daily News after two years to attend journalism school at Columbia University before returning to Onslow County in 2015. He moved away to Virginia in 2020. 

On April 6, Brennan became the first Marine veteran recognized by the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation with the Gen. Lejeune Award for Leadership. His work in founding and growing The War Horse is a big part of why. 

When Brennan left The Daily News in 2014 to attend journalism school, he took a tour of The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering America’s criminal justice system. During the tour, Brennan said he wondered if a newsroom like that could exist focused on the military. 

“When I was at The Daily News, I was the only military reporter covering a massive military community with way more needs than I could cover as one reporter,” Brennan said. “At the same time, I was witnessing how the stories I was covering in Onslow County weren’t getting noticed by the broader media ecosystem. They were also representative of similar issues that were in other military communities, whether it was Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, whatever.”

Brennan added this is what led him to wonder how he could help reinvigorate the military reporting space. 

After graduating from journalism school, Brennan focused on The War Horse’s business plan, building up the advisory board and launching a kick starter campaign in the Spring 2016. The 30-day campaign raised $50,000, and he did it all from his home in Richlands. 

“That’s when it became real,” Brennan said. “I had to launch War Horse at that time because we’d reached the fundraising goal and started reporting. I published the Marines United expose, the nude photo scandal back in 2017 that was focused on that happened on Camp Lejeune. I was still reporting on the community, even though I was trying to launch a national newsroom.”

Over the years, Brennan said The War Horse has transitioned from one part-time reporter to seven full-time reporters. He said they also have more than ten others who work part-time as fact-checkers and contractors. But they could still use donations and philanthropy. 

Philanthropy is the lifeblood of nonprofit news, Brennan said, adding he feels they’ve been thoughtful stewards of the money people have invested in them so far. But he’s looking to grow The War Horse to be a national newsroom that also has a local footprint to help cover military communities. 

As far as the award goes, Brennan still can’t believe it. 

“I’m still pinching myself about the award if I’m being honest,” Brennan said. “Being the first enlisted Marine to receive any recognition, it comes with a weight and a responsibility and an expectation that you live up to the challenge and what it symbolizes and that you continue to earn the award you’ve been selected for.”

On the flip side, Brennan said he knows there are some Marines who see his work as a reporter as being at odds with what the military stands for and does. He said he’s proud that this reminds him there’s still a lot of work to be done. 

It’s why he started The War Horse in the first place. 

“I want veterans and military families to have a more prominent voice in the national conversation and if I continue to live up to what the award stands for, good leadership, demonstrating positive leadership qualities, then I think that will help to achieve the ultimate goal that we’re aiming for at War Horse,” Brennan said. 

During the award ceremony, two other War Horse writers were recognized for excellence. They included Russell Worth Parker and Francisco Martínezcuello. Dan Lamothe, a mentor during The War Horse’s Writing Seminar for Medics and Corpsmen, was also recognized for his reporting on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Brennan emphasized again that there’s much work still to be done through The War Horse, and he thinks the future involves Onslow County. He added that military coverage is not just about those who wear the uniforms or are deployed, but also the schools, families, hospitals and more. 

The War Horse plans to eventually launch a military spouse reporting network, portable employment and professional development for military spouses in journalism. Brennan wants the first spouse to be from Camp Lejeune. He said it’s symbolic. 

“We want Onslow County to not be a military reporting news desert,” Brennan added. 

Brennan does have a piece of advice for both young Marines and emerging journalists, who he said have more in common than they think. 

“Each of us has a role to play in our democracy,” Brennan said. “Integrity and tenacity and any of the other Marine Corps leadership traits apply to journalism, the military and society more broadly, and embodying those will make our communities and our country a better place.”  

In the coming months, The War Horse team is dedicating resources to pursuing legal appeals to rejected FOIAs, investigating the intersection of extremism and mental health and its implications on democracy, as well as continuing to ensure veterans and military families have a voice in the national conversation, according to The War Horse website. 

Reporter Morgan Starling can be reached at


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