Every military service member or veteran has a ton of “hold my beer, watch this” stories. Not many have one that starts:
“So… we decided to create a coffee table photobook about the veteran experience in under six months, got laughed at for it, had our photographer drive 16,000 miles, across 42 states, in 60 days to interview and photograph 71 veterans while praying everyone’s timeline stays synced. We released our book on time, and on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, it became an Amazon bestseller and a museum exhibition at the National Veterans Memorial and Museum.”
That is precisely the story that Dan Blakeley can tell when he’s at his favorite watering hole.
Eight years post-service, at the tail end of 2020, Dan began to reflect on his time in uniform and lean into his veteran identity. He was searching for a way to give back to the veteran community and start a more authentic conversation between veterans and American civilians. “I felt most stories told in Hollywood, books, and national media were not authentic to my story,” Dan stated. “The more I spoke with fellow veterans; they felt the same. I knew I needed to act but didn’t know in what context.”
As he worked through his thoughts, Dan’s childhood best friend, Beau Simmons, had just moved across the country from LA to North Carolina, living in Dan’s guest bedroom while transitioning. While sitting around Dan’s kitchen table, discussing projects they could collaborate on, the childhood best friends decided to create a photojournal to profile veterans who have served in the Global War on Terror- America’s longest war. Beau just so happens to be an internationally known medium-format film photographer.
As quickly as the idea came, the execution plan presented an issue - tapping into a veteran network with enough representation to showcase all who have served and collect and write their story- all within a few months.
So, Dan called me. We served in the National Guard together and instantly hit it off. Like him, I had also served in the Ranger Regiment. I was also one of the founders of Ranger Up, and Dan knew I’d been around the veteran space for a long time.
“Dude, I need your help getting vets for this book,” he told me. The more Dan was talking, the more I got excited. “Oh yeah dude, this is awesome. Let’s go!” I remember telling him. Then I immediately started emailing and texting people.
In January 2021, we were off and running. Beau was on the road photographing and recording audio for interviews, feeding them to me to author the veteran’s first-person stories, and everyone burning smartphone data to figure out where Beau was going next.
“It was a chaotic ride - staying in cheap motels, getting up before dawn to arrive at my next destination in time, and in most cases, meeting with 2-3 veterans a day in different states and learning who I’m meeting with while en route,” Beau explained. “But, the process was the same each time. We asked each veteran where they wanted to meet, taking their photo in an environment which was authentic to them. Whether that was their house, their church, the gym, the range, or some location they enjoyed.”
National Veterans Memorial and Museum (NVMM) CEO LtGen (ret) Michael Ferriter and Chief of Staff Col (ret) Bill Butler were early enthusiastic supporters of the project. Quickly, they offered the museum as the site to launch our book. Twenty years after al-Qaeda's terrorist attacks on US soil, The Twenty-Year War officially launched at the NVMM - the perfect venue for such a commemorative book. As the book launch event was winding down, we jokingly exclaimed, “you know this could be a heck of a museum exhibit.”
The NVMM Director of Exhibitions, Meagan McGowan, agreed.
“The Twenty-Year War offered the NVMM an opportunity to share the stories of GWOT veterans in their own words. Each story is compelling, each pathway to service is unique, and we knew each story would resonate with those who visited the exhibition,” Meagan said.
Featuring twenty portraits from The Twenty-Year War, the museum exhibition launched in March 2022 and was on display until mid-October. The in-person exhibition is actively finding its next home, and we will announce the new destination in the coming months. Although, the collection is removed from the halls of the NVMM, The Twenty-Year War: Our Next Greatest Generation virtual exhibition can be viewed online at https://20yearwar.nationalvmm.org/.
Please visit The National Veterans Memorial and Museum in person or online at https://nationalvmm.org/
You can order a copy of The Twenty-Year War at https://twentyyearwar.com/
By Tom Amenta, Co-Author of The Twenty-Year War