“Your past never forgets you.” – Dan Blakeley
The first thing that struck me about Dan is that he’s incredibly easy to talk to. Some special operations guys have a reputation for being a little standoffish or having a larger-than-life ego, not Dan. Yet, he endured some of the most demanding military training there is to become a member of the 2nd Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment, part of the US Special Operations Forces (SOF). Dan deployed six times in six years to multiple war zones in support of the Global War on Terror. He’s fought in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Naturally ambitious, Blakeley joined the Army at the age of 17, right out of high school after graduating a year early. He went straight through basic training, followed by airborne school and the grueling Ranger pipeline, ending up at the 2nd Battalion, where he served from 2006 to 2012, eventually earning the rank of Staff Seargent.
Then, as happens to so many of us, life threw him a curveball; his was during the Army’s Advanced Leader’s course while he was on a group run. Dan started feeling a sharp pain in his chest. Instead of going away, it only got worse. In short order, he found himself in the back of the fall-out van and, later, on his way to the ER. Turns out it wasn’t just indigestion from some bad burritos the night before; the doctors found that Blakeley had a hole in his heart.
There is no scenario where that is going to be good news for anyone, especially a warfighter.
After exiting the Army, he earned a double Master’s at Appalachian State University and went on to found United Valor, an organization that helps veterans by telling their stories in a way that fosters healing and understanding, ultimately aiding their transition back into civilian life. His book is an extension of their efforts.
Hearing how Dan and his fellow authors took the stories of 71 post-9/11 combat veterans and presented them in their own words reminded me of one of the best books I have ever read, The Good War by Studs Terkel. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for General Non-Fiction and was required reading as part of my course of study as an Army cadet. Briefly, the author interviewed over 100 people worldwide and told their stories of the days immediately before, during, and after World War II. It’s an oral history of the greatest generation. Post 9/11 veterans, in their own way, can be considered to be our nation’s second “greatest generation.”
However, many of their stories have remained untold until now. The Twenty-Year War breaks their silence and allows the reader to become part of their world. In doing so, we understand the individual’s motivation, sacrifice, and ongoing challenges. This becomes both cathartic for the storyteller and enlightening to the reader. I believe it’s destined to be a new American classic.
I hope you enjoy reading the SOFREP interview of Dan Blakeley as much as I did talking with him.
SOFREP: So, how are you doing this morning, Dan?
DB: I’m doing well; how about yourself?
SOFREP: Great, thanks. Could you tell us a little bit about your military background?
DB: Sure, I joined straight out of high school; I actually graduated a year early and joined when I was seventeen. Went straight through basic training…everything…airborne school, Ranger indoctrination program…ended up at 2nd Ranger Battalion, which is where I served for six years. From 2006 to 2012. It was kind of during the peak, during the height of both wars; that’s when the two surges happened and everything. So, it was a pretty high optempo at the time.
I served there up until I was a squad leader, a Staff Sergent, operated on the line, and then got out because I had some medical issues. My heart kinda started failing on me (laughs). I guess too much stress or something. I ended up deciding to go to college, and while I was in college, I also stayed in the North Carolina National Guard for two more years, teaching OCS [Officer Candidate School] through the National Guard, so I was an OCS instructor for two years.
SOFREP: I was reading your book, and I really enjoyed it because it was broken down into bite-sized stories. Seventy-one of them, right?
DB: Uh-huh, yeah.
SOFREP: I was surprised by the story of how you had to fall out of a run with chest pains and then be taken to the hospital, where you found out you had a hole in your heart. Did you suspect anything that serious was wrong with you?
DB: I did not. Honestly, up until that happened, I thought I was relatively invincible. I think a lot of people, especially that serve in special operations, think that they are…until something happens to them. I had every intention to stay in. I was coming up on a reenlistment as well, and I was recently married. Basically, what the doctors told me was that it could be fine; you could be OK for the rest of your life. Or, you could continue to stress your heart, and the hole could get bigger and you would need to have open heart surgery to repair it. I said, “That’s a pretty big ‘maybe.’”
So, I decided to stay in through the rest of my enlistment, I had one more deployment. Once this happened, basically, I told them, “Well, look, I’ve got to really assess whether this is smart for me and my family or not, to stay in.” Me and my wife talked about it, I went on my last deployment, came back, still was having off and on chest pain and ultimately decided it would be best for me not to stress out my body so much. And, it was hard to leave the guys that I served with and the guys that I trained. They were going to be on the same optempo and constantly deploying. So to not be able to be there and fight alongside of them was rough. It was definitely a difficult thing.
SOFREP: And how are you doing now?
DB: I think slowing down, backing off, has definitely made it better. I get chest pains every once in a while, I get checked out annually to make sure nothing is getting worse, but I haven’t had to have a procedure or anything.
SOFREP: So, did you get the idea for your book, The Twenty Year War, because it was coming up on the 20th anniversary of 9/11?
DB: Well, initially, in 2020, I had a lot of time at home, like everybody else, and I took a lot of time to reflect on life in general. I talk about it in the book, but I did not do a good job of staying connected. As soon as I got out of the military, I pushed off everything, didn’t identify as a veteran, most people didn’t know, and I didn’t even try to let people know. But in 2020 I started reflecting and thinking that there has to be countless other people out there who don’t want to tell their story, don’t want to feel connected, for whatever reason, and so I was thinking of ways to try to connect with those types of veterans.
At the same time this is happening, one of my childhood best friends, Beau Simmons, he’s the photographer for the book, was moving across the country to North Carolina to be closer to me. And he had been working on a photo series for Heros and Horses, a veteran non-profit, and he said he wanted to figure out a way to keep doing the same kind of thing. He wanted to give back to the veteran community. He hasn’t served himself, but he has a strong affinity for veterans and people who have served.
We were both talking at my kitchen table and got to thinking about how we could put our heads together and do something for veterans. We figured we’d tell the stories of veterans, do portraits of veterans, as they are today, not in uniform, out of service. He loved the idea. I realized it was the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 and the GWOT [Global War on Terror] and I said we should just lean on that theme and call it The Twenty-Year War. We’d tell stories of only people who had served in the past 20 years, in combat. Lots of time books are written so long after the fact; why don’t we do ours now when we’re right at the tail end of it?
DB: After we had the idea to do the book, I got a hold of Tom [co-author Tom Amenta]. We had been in the National Guard together for a year and had become good friends. He had co-founded a company called “Ranger Up” but had recently left and said he was tired of doing veteran projects because it had taken up so much of his time. When I told him this idea [for the book], he as like, “100%, tell me what you need. I’m all for it.”
The first thing I asked him for was his black book; I said, “Give me all your contacts, everybody that you know.”
SOFREP: That answered my next question. I was wondering how you found all of these fascinating people to interview for your book.
DB: We started calling people who would help support this book. About a month into it, I talked to Tom again and asked him if he could help me write these stories…because I needed some help from someone who had some experience. And that’s how he became heavily involved in the writing of the book. To go back to your question about how we got all these specific people….all word of mouth. I contacted my first initial network of people, and they asked how they could help the project, then connected us with two or three more people, and it kind of just organically grew that way.
SOFREP: I wanted to comment on how much Beau’s images contribute to the book. To see portraits of the people behind the stories goes a long way in making them more relatable.
DB: He had been doing fashion photography for a long time, and he decided he wanted to get back into more traditional photography. He shot every single photo in the book on a 1980s camera, all on medium format film.
SOFREP: My favorite quote of yours from the book is where you note, “Your past never forgets you.” Everyone deals with their past in their own way, and that comes out in the stories.
DB: Yep, we had a guy in the book, Roy…he could not open the book for months. He gave it to all his family and friends and let them read it, and they had no trouble with it, but he couldn’t bring himself to read it since it’s a piece of his story of how he lost one of his guys overseas. We left the details out, per his request. But, over a decade after he retired, out of pure luck, or chance, or whatever you call it, got connected to the guy’s father once he got back, and his photos in the book are of them at his friend’s grave. Roy’s past found him. It took him months to open it…he finally opened it (maybe five or six months after the book was released), then he called me and said, “I can’t thank you enough for doing this. For kind of forcing me to be able to read these stories because it’s important.”
And that right there was enough for me to write a book like this. I have countless other examples, but that one really struck me.
SOFREP: Your book is helping a lot of people heal, not just the veterans portrayed in the book but other veterans who read it as well.
DB: And that’s what I hope it does, and I hope it continues to do. We struck when the iron was hot, right at the end of the twenty-year war, and of course, that’s the title of the book. People are still buying it. Once people have learned of the book, they understand the impact it can carry.
SOFREP: Dan, we thank you for your service, for writing this wonderful book, and for taking the time to talk with us today.