Cowboys & Indians would like to thank our folks in uniform for their service, and we're taking a look into their lives through the lens of The Twenty-Year War.
"A book by photographer Beau Simmons and Army Rangers Dan Blakeley and Tom Amenta, speaks volumes about the courage, selflessness, creativity, and resilience of those who served with enormous distinction over the past 20 years."
— Dana Joseph, Cowboys & Indians Editorial Director
Being a cowboy, says photographer Beau Simmons, is in his blood. Photography is too. So it was just a matter of time before his passions aligned and he quit cover the fashion scene, as high-profile as his work was, to chase something more meaningful. Taking to the road to renew his spirit, he immersed himself in the Western lifestyle and the American landscape, training his lens on classic Americana, especially cowboys and life on the land. On one of this cross-country journeys, Simmons came across the nonprofit Heroes and Horses, a group that uses equine therapy to help veterans cope with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries.
His experiences with that organization eventually led to his first feature photo book, The Twenty-Year War (Ballast Books, 2021), dedicated to veterans of the war on terrorism. With former combat-tested 2/75 Army Rangers Dan Blakeley and Tom Amenta, Simmons captured veterans' stories from all branches of the U.S. military. The 71 profiles and accompanying portraits and deployment photos reveal the realities of service and combat, post-military challenges, "and what it's like to find purpose and meaning after hanging up their uniform."
The book passes serious military muster for its authenticity and keen observation. Former CIA director Gen. David Petraeus (U.S. Army, Ret) declared, "The stores in The Twenty-Year War speak volumes about the courage, selflessness, creativity, and resilience of those who served with enormous distinction over the past 20 years. All Americans should read this book; those who do will conclude, as I have, that the people who raised their right hands and took an oath of service to our country in the years after the 9/11 attacks surely are America's new Greatest Generation." And former Four-Star Gen. Doug Brown said it might be "the most important book about America's longest war. It is so much more than a photo book. There are plenty of important war stories, but this is deeply personal, told by those who approached the war from a variety of viewpoints and duty positions and then transitioned to civilian life to be our newest Greatest Generation. From the bomber pilot high above the battlefield to the Green Beret on the ground, the men and women serving on active duty, reserve, or National Guard tell their stories ... the stories of the veterans of our longest war. The photographs are amazing and bring the stories to life. If there is one book that provides an explanation of the personal side of modern warfare, it is The Twenty-Year War photo book."
That kind of praise is gratifying — as was The Twenty-Year War. Our Next Greatest Generation exhibition that wrapped up at the National Veterans Memorial and Museum in Columbus, Ohio, in October — but for Simmons, the real reward was in getting to know the veterans he met and profiled and supporting the organizations that serve them.
We asked Simmons to choose a handful of veterans profiles and portraits from The Twenty-Year War for the readers of C&I.
Jon Jackson, Staff Sergeant
Army-92A / 75th Ranger Regiment
Years of Service: 11 years
Deployments: 6 (Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom)
My name is Jon Jackson, and I was a 92A Supply Clerk in the United States Army. I was a member of the 75th Ranger Regiment when I separated and did six tours in support of the Global War on Terror. In was in for 11 years total and separated as a Staff Sergeant (E-6). I joined because of 9/11. I lived in Jersey City, on Garfield Ave., where my childhood view was the World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty.
After separating from the Army, I started Comfort Farms. My Ranger buddy, Kyle Comfort, was KIA in 2010. I had this thought: "Kyle was such a cool guy and 'Comfort Farms' is a great name," and the farm was born. We're committed to helping veterans heal through learning to farm. The name can be misleading; we're not here to be comfortable. You can only grow in discomfort. We have a total farm, complete with a farmer's market. We're totally self-funded through what we produce. We were just awarded a grant to teach agriculture for the next three years. You can take classes at Central Georgia Tech, use your GI Bill, and get credit hours by learning farming from the ground up.
Separating is tough. You come from a unit like the Rangers and then you are out. You aren't deploying or jumping, you feel like you lost your edge. I went through some real serious depression ... almost committed suicide. When I clawed my way out and survived it, I felt like there's nothing I couldn't do. Even when I was having relationship issues with my wife, all the hard work on the farm had the effect of helping us repair that. You're only as good as your support. If I look like a rockstar, it's because of my family and the veterans I work with all supporting me. You need your tribe. It's never just about you!
Kevin Brewington, Corporal
Army-11B / 1-25th Stryker Brigade
Years of Service: 3 years
Deployments: 1 (Operation Enduring Freedom)
My name is Kevin Brewington and I enlisted as an infantryman in the United States Army. My enlistment was supposed to be three years. A year and a half in, I got hurt and was medically retired. I was the radio telephone operator (RTO) on a patrol during our deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2011. We were working to set up a COP in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan. We had just met with the elders and had our tea and talked. As we were wrapping up, suddenly the elders left, which was a red flag. As our vehicles started rolling, we saw a suspected IED on the road. Our commander made the decision to cut through a gap in an adobe wall. As I went through the hole, the IED detonated. I woke up four days later in Germany on a ventilator. I lost both my legs and getting my right arm working was the biggest challenge ... besides losing my legs. Including the skin grafts, I'm guessing I had to endure 50 to 70 surgeries, depending on if you count the washouts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
I got married in December 2012 and officially retired in January of 2013. I now volunteer with The Independence Fund and also The Greatest Generations Foundation. At The Greatest Generations Foundation, we take veterans back to the battlefield to heal. We have gone to Normandy, Vietnam, and are working on being able to go back to Afghanistan. It's very therapeutic for these veterans and helps bury the past. I really like helping fellow vets and I get to meet cool people, both public figures and other awesome vets. I also use my network to introduce other veterans to opportunities. Finally, I work with the local sheriff's department, showing them the importance of staying calm and using a tourniquet correctly, which is pretty cool.
Katie Crombe, Lieutenant Colonel
Army-59A / Strategic Plans and Police
Years in Service: Active
Deployments: 2 (Operation Iraqi Freedom)
Christine Schwartz, Captain
Army-92A / Quartermaster Office
Years of Service: 5 years
Deployments: 1 (Operation Enduring Freedom)
Katie: I'm Katie Crombe, and I'm currently a strategic planning officer in the United States Army.
I joined to pay for college. After graduating in 2003, I went right to my unit and then to Iraq. I commanded a platoon of truck drivers. Almost 18 years later, I'm still here and I'm currently a Lieutenant Colonel (O-5). In 2018 I became the aide-de-camp to General Joseph Votel, who was the commander of Central Command (CENTCOM) at the time. I traveled with him all over the theater of operations to support the troops, both training other nations' forces and fighting the Global War on Terror. I'm the oldest of three girls and one of my sisters, Christine, here to my right, also served.
Christine: I don't know if I always wanted to join, but I was fascinated when my sister first deployed. I was in high school and I could just see how much her peers and her soldiers loved each other. I was really impressed by that.
Katie: I was so happy. I mean, I was scared when she deployed to Afghanistan and I was working a desk in D.C. But we communicated a lot when we were overseas; we had that common thread where we didn't have to really explain things.
Christine: I deployed in 2011 as a 92A quartermaster officer. I was overseas as executive officer of a supply company doing re-supply runs to line units that were forward. When Katie first deployed in 2004, there wasn't a lot of communication ability. Unlike Katie, I have since separated from service and now I lead Service to School, which is a nonprofit to help veterans apply and get accepting to top-tier colleges, including the Ivy Leagure.
Katie: It's a wonderful organization.
Christine: Readjustment to civilian life wasn't really difficult in terms of taking off my uniform. That wasn't hard. But I was, and am still, a military spouse. I was just drifting with my husband for a little bit, and I had a really hard time trying to find a good job when I got out. I had a hard time selling myself and felt so undervalued. I found Service to School and went to work, kept moving up. I love the mission. It's really important that vets, especially first-gen college students, understand that education can open so many doors.
Katie: Vets are such a part of the American fabric. Most of us, even the wounded, aren't the broken characters we are sometimes portrayed as. I mean, I've been through some things, divorce and normal things, but all in all I'm really happy with my choices and the support given to us soldiers. Veterans graduating from some of these schools can help change that conversation and that broken character stereotype.
Christine: Absolutely. There are so many super smart, super capable veterans. Some of the absolute smartest on the planet. I look at Kate, and she has always been a leader. It isn't something that's taught or learned, but she's always had it and it's great.
Katie: Christine is great at being true to herself. She lives the life that I tell my soldiers to: Seize the day, dare greatly! If you're willing to take risks, you can make a difference to others.
Christine: I say, "Try to put yourself in someone else's shoes and understand them and their opinions." Have conversation before you start to judge them. The military is so important for that. It's one of those places where the most important thing is service; the rest goes out the window.
Jeremiah Wilber, Sergeant First Class
Army-18E, 18Z / Special Forces
Years of Service: 20 years
Deployments: 5 (Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Inherent Resolve)
I'm Jeremiah Wilber, and I retired from the United States Army as a Special Forces Team Sergeant. I'd wanted to serve since I was 3 or 4. My grandfathers and father had all served, and it was kinda my calling. I loved the warrior path they laid out for me. I deployed on teams as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Inherent Resolve, Operation Enduring Freedom, and twice to counter Russian aggression north of the Arctic Circle. I had a really good transition, because of the people I'm surrounded by. I am the National Partnership Manager for UnCanna, a CBD company founded by a fellow veteran. I am also a hunting guide and outfitter here in Colorado. I have also worked with Clandestine Media as a model. The veterans at these companies, especially the former Special Operations guys, really took me in and helped me and my family post-retirement.
When I'm not working or spending time with my family, I like to backcountry ski and compete in Skimo: Think ultra-marathons, but on skis. Also, any time I can be on a horse in the wilderness is the best therapy I've ever experienced in my life. I really enjoy spending the day riding. Growing up in a Native American family, my mom used to always say, "Today is a good day to die." Warriors have long said it before battle because it meant they were right with their family and The Great Creator or God. It's about honor and always being prepared for death as you are right with the ones you love. That's how I choose to live my life.
Callie Farill, Senior Airman
Air Force-E3751 / Firefighter
Years of Service: 6 years
Deployments: 2 (Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom)
My name is Callie Farill, and I was a firefighter in the U.S. Air Force. I left the Air Force as a Senior Airman (E-4). I deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2010 and Operation Enduring Freedom in 2015. I also went back to Iraq as a contractor post-service. I was one of those kids that lived in a small town and didn't want to stay in a small town. I had gotten my firefighter level one and two certifications while in high school. My dad had been in the military and he suggested it.
When I separated, we had some pretty good guidance; they were starting to get TAPs (Transition Assistance Programs) right. The DAV was a great resource for disability. They'll assign you a person and walk you through your entire disability process. Purple Heart [Foundation] will, as well. After contracting I had some money but was tired of being a firefighter. Eleven years into the gig, my body was starting to break down. I moved to Utah, and TacGas offered me a job as an event coordinator. I was doing a logistics job, but it was not fulfilling. I have loved dogs since I was a kid — they just gravitate to me. So, I googled "K9 GI Bill," found a program, and moved across the country to take a 13-week course. Once I was certified I started my career as a K9 handler. I worked the NBA All-Star Game in 2019, the "Hamilton" touring show, and eventually picked up a job in Vegas when I helped get a K9 program set up. Gigs in the K9 industry ebb and flow. I met Rich at Home Front K9 and now I'm working on training dogs for them.
I've gotten into some hairy situations, but if you stop, you get stuck. Keep going forward!
Chris & Angie Baker, Lieutenant Commanders
May-1310 / Naval Aviators
Years of Service: 8 years
Deployments: 1 each (Operation Anaconda, Operation Enduring Freedom)
We're Chris and Angie Baker, and we were both pilots in the United States Navy.
Chris: Angie's dad was an Air Force Academy grad and wanted her to be an aviator. Then Top Fun happened, and, well, that was it.
Angie: Chris, on the other hand, was talked into joining the military after he was already a consultant in Chicago. He was looking for a new thing and found the Navy. We both left as Lieutenant Commanders (O-4)
Chris: Angie flew the P-3 Orion during Operation Anaconda on recon missions during the early phases of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Angie: Chris flew EP-3s on various deployments in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The Semper Fi Fund has a special place in our hearts. One of our children is special needs and they really came through and helped support us with specialized care. Since then, we've been supporting them every year with their combined federal campaign donation.
Chris: Since separating from the service, Angie has been focused on being Mom to our five kids, doing approach coding for Boeing, looking to starting a franchise business and managing rental properties.
Angie: Chris transitioned right into commercial flying for Southwest Airlines after nine years on active duty. The timing was perfect. Just crazy luck to be able to go right to the airline. He has been a captain now for five years. The move to Southwest made the transition much easier.
Chris: Angie's transition was harder than she thought it would be. In the military, there are like-minded people all around you, but in the civilian world, there isn't as much in common with the people you meet and are around.
Angie: With me and Chris still flying, there's a lot of military people in the industry, but also there's the camaraderie of being pilots.
We hope our fellow veterans appreciate how amazing they are and how much their service matters. There is a small percentage of Americans who have served, and it shows how amazing the United States is. We served with such quality people. To take on the responsibility of defending the U.S., in your early twenties, in a time of war, is an awesome responsibility.
Chris: Angie's life mantra is to constantly improve, work to be the best you can be every day.
Angie: Chris would tell you that you can't take anything for granted. Tomorrow isn't promised. You go overseas and friends don't come back; you need to remember not to take life for granted.
We know it's the biggest challenge, but we say: Work to find a new purpose. Connect with other veterans. Don't be afraid to work with a headhunter or recruiter to help you translate your experiences as you separate from service. It's okay to ask for help! And start looking before you leave. Look at what you want to do and realize all the cool things you've done might not sync up. So think hard about the new qualifications or skills you might beed to have nine months or so before you leave.
Want to learn more? Read our interview with Beau Simmons on his experience collaborating on The Twenty-Year War.
The Twenty-Year War by Dan Blakeley, Tom Amenta, and Beau Simmons is available for purchase at twentyyearwar.com. Proceeds form the sale of each book go to support veteran organizations.