Warrior Wire: We’ve Got Their Backs … And Their Tits & Ass

Penthouse, Warrior Wire

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I recently read a story about New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, and how he writes his columns about specific people and not merely the broader issues because readers have an easier time relating if the story is about a singular person than about the hundreds, thousands, or millions actually impacted. At first, I was kind of annoyed. It seems ridiculous of people to think that way, and I didn’t want to believe that that’s how we really react to news. But then I realized that that’s exactly how I write, too. Which brings us to my latest Warrior Wire column.

Every couple of years, someone decides that Penthouse should be banned on military bases and we get kicked out of the PXes all across the country. In the eight years I’ve been with the magazine, I’ve seen us banned two or three times, and heard about people wanting to ban us at least twice as often, probably more. The reasons are always a little absurd. I read something once about how a woman complained and fought to ban the magazine because she was in a PX with her child and saw a soldier buying the magazine, and she didn’t want to have to explain to her child what the magazine was and why this (grown) man was buying it. This startled me for a number of reasons. First off, all Penthouse magazines sold on newsstands are polybagged, which means you can only see the front and back cover. And, I’m sorry, but our cover is no more risqué than Cosmopolitan or Maxim or any other (wo)men’s interest magazine. Even our cover lines aren’t that racy. Again, no more so than any other magazine that you can find on the shelves. But, also, if your kid asks what Penthouse is, you can simply say, “It’s a magazine for grownups.” That’s what my parents did, and it’s what I do when I have to explain to underage folk (the kids of family and friends) what I do. And it’s always enough to end the conversation with them, because, really, they don’t care. And if your kid is old enough to care, they’re going to find a way to get their hands on some dirty magazines no matter what you do. (Don’t act like you didn’t steal your dad’s Penthouse or your friend’s dad’s Playboy. We all did it.)

Anyway, when I was asked to write this editorial, all those things came to mind. But my being pissed wasn’t going to do much, because I’m the writer. Of course I’m mad when people can’t buy my magazine. As a writer, I’m annoyed because it keeps people from seeing my writing, and I work really hard on every article. And as an employee, I get irritated because by not selling the magazine that pays my rent, they’re possibly cutting into my ability to pay my rent down the line. (Note: Jerks!) So I knew I needed other voices. And this brings us back to my earlier point. When I write, I write about people. Sure, sometimes I write about people who need better health care, or people who don’t want their retirement benefits cut, or even simply people who like music, but every story I’ve written has been, at its heart, about people. Because as it turns out, I’m one of those people who cares more about an issue when I can connect it to a person, a face, a name, a story, then when all I’ve got are statistics and hard facts.

I was surprised with how many of the vets I’ve talked to actually got back to me when I sent out an email asking for their opinions on the latest Penthouse ban. I’ve been lucky to always talk to people who are willing to help me out whenever they can, but this seemed like an odd story, and I really didn’t expect many responses. The four people included in this article—Jenny, Jesse, Geoff, and Justin—had the strongest opinions of all of them, and they also all had great ways of expressing those opinions. I had already written a rough draft before hearing back from them, but adding their statements really made this article come alive for me. Without them, it felt like just me being ranty, and outside of email chains with my friends, I try to keep my ranting to a minimum because who the hell am I? But with their voices, it became an issue, one that I thought people could understand as being about more than a magazine staff being upset that sales numbers were going to drop a bit.

Some of the quotes I got made me think differently. One of the reasons suggested for the ban was that magazines like Penthouse are a root cause of sexual assault, teaching men that women are merely objects. Jenny mentioned that one of the reasons that our magazine couldn’t be blamed for military sexual trauma (MST), though, was that MST also happened to men, and I hadn’t really thought about that before. And Geoff and Jesse both brought up points about how the military was so concerned with banning a magazine, but had yet to address the real issue of MST, which is that it’s underreported, and when it is reported, it’s almost impossible for the victims to get justice because they have to report to their chain of command, some of whom are the ones committing these assaults. But my favorite quotes came from Justin, who in our interview said basically all the things I wanted to say, but better. He brought up points I wanted to bring up, and basically could have written the editorial himself if I’d let him. He also had a great line about how it’s unfair that he can serve in the military, fight a war, risk death, but they won’t let him see a pair of tits. … And, okay, I’ll admit it, part of me was excited to be able to use words like “tits” and “balls” in Warrior Wire, since those articles are usually more cut and dry—and less vulgar. So, there’s that, too.

Anywho, the point of the editorial is that people (who are of age and legally allowed to do so) should be able to buy Penthouse if that’s what they want to do. Especially people who we’re willing to send off to war and who may come back injured or maybe not come back at all. So, yeah, I think if you’re allowed to go to war, you should be allowed to read a fucking “dirty” magazine. And if you don’t want your kids seeing the magazine, then don’t buy it (or do, but just hide it really well). Other people shouldn’t have to give up simple pleasures like this because other people are too fucking afraid of sex to know how to explain it to a child or, I fear, to have it explained to them. [End rant]

Now, if you want to read the actual editorial, and see what the vets I interviewed had to say about whether you—or they—should be allowed to buy Penthouse on military bases, check out my/the magazine’s editorial, “We’ve Got Their Backs … And Their Tits & Ass” from the June 2014 issue of, you guessed it, Penthouse. 

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Warrior Wire: Denied Till They Die

Penthouse, Warrior Wire

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When I started working on this article, I honestly thought I’d be writing about something else. I’d been contacted by Tracee Beebe, a filmmaker who was working on a documentary about Vietnam veterans, and she told me that they were being denied benefits from the VA because their military records didn’t reflect their service accurately. I was intrigued, and I pitched my editor the story. At the same time, my father had just been awarded disability compensation by the VA for exposure to Agent Orange, something that he’d been fighting for since he returned home, and I had pitched another story about that issue. I even thought I might interview my dad, make him tell me all the stories I’ve never heard, and all the ones I have that I want to hear again.

Then I started doing my interviews for this piece. It turned out that all the vets I was in touch with were trying to get benefits for exposure to Agent Orange, and all of them were being denied because they didn’t have “boots on the ground.” The story had changed.

My dad helped me out with a lot of the research as I worked on the story, and he sent me every scrap of paper and internet link he had that had some useful information. But because he’d (finally) been given a disability rating, he was no longer part of my Agent Orange story. And, actually, I was glad. Not because I didn’t want to interview him or hear his stories. We talk every week, multiple times, and I love hearing his stories. No, I was glad he was out of the story because of how hard it was to talk to the men who hadn’t gotten a rating and weren’t receiving benefits. Some of them cried when we spoke. Sometimes, I cried after I hung up. One man who’d agreed to an interview died before we could actually talk. That was tough. And all of them sounded a lot like my dad.

Tracee had started her documentary because of her father’s experience with the VA and Agent Orange, and when she and I spoke, it was like we were talking about the same person. The way she described her father—his attitude, the things he said, the way he thought about his service, the worries he had—sounded exactly like my dad. All of the men, really, were similar to my father. Maybe it’s just that they all come from the same generation, or maybe because they all fought the same wars, literally and figuratively. Whatever it was, it was like talking to and about my dad, all day, every day, while I worked on this. Except that my dad wasn’t sick like they were. And my dad wasn’t still waiting for someone to admit that something had happened to him and he deserved to be compensated. My dad, unlike some of the men I spoke to, was doing better than ever.

I know that there are so many more issues out there, and with wounded troops still coming home from Afghanistan, and the VA still mired in scandal, Agent Orange seems like a minor, far-away issue. But it’s still something that so many men (and women) are battling. And Agent Orange doesn’t only affect the veterans who were exposed, but their children and grandchildren. And while the number of people affected dwindles every day, as the older generations die off, it doesn’t make the issue go away. If we’re still fighting to get vets taken care of more than four decades after the Vietnam War, how long will this newest generation of vets have to fight to get the care they deserve?

While we wait for that answer, I’d love it if you’d take a minute to read my article, “Denied Till They Die,” from the May 2014 issue of Penthouse. You can read it by clicking the above image or by clicking here.

Warrior Wire: Diet COLA

Penthouse, Warrior Wire

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I don’t really have a lot to say about this article, especially since it’s kind of old news by now. I had written this when the COLA cuts were still an everyday news item, and it was the hot-button veterans issue of the moment. Now, with the VA scandal going on, this feels ancient. That said, I still think it’s worth a read.

When I was working on this article, something strange happened. A veteran follower of mine on Twitter actually reached out to me to ask me to explain how the COLA cuts were going to work. He hadn’t had a chance to really dig into the news, and he was concerned. Knowing that I followed the issues, he sent me a message asking me if I could put the whole mess into layman’s terms for him to let him know just what to expect. I took it as a compliment, that because of all my work writing and editing the Warrior Wire column the past couple of years, someone actually saw me as some sort of authority on the matter. It felt pretty cool, I must say. Although Penthouse has been covering veterans and the military for four decades, people don’t always take it seriously, and it’s not always easy to get interviews, as some people still don’t realize we publish articles like this. It makes the job of putting together this monthly feature that much harder, but it also makes it that much more rewarding when I get feedback. Whether it’s someone saying they’ve looked up my work and are willing to grant me an interview because they like what I’ve done so far, or someone like this guy who reached out and asked me, because of my writing, to help him understand the issue, it means a lot to know that these articles are getting out there and having some sort of impact. Even if only one person is helped by the work I do (and the work my editors and fellow Warrior Wire writers do), that’s still a big deal.

I’d also like to take a moment here to thank Joe Davis, from the VFW, for all his help with this article. I know a lot, but I’m also fortunate enough to have a really amazing community of people much more knowledgeable than I am who let me pick their brains every month and help me understand what’s going on so that I can share the news with my readers. I’m not exactly an economics wiz, so some of the math-y stuff involved in writing this COLA article was a little bit harder to grasp. Joe took the time to explain it all to me, and his responses to my questions were so in-depth and detailed that I joked that I should give him the byline of the story, since he’d put in as much work as I had.

Anywho, you can read my article, “Diet COLA,” front the April 2014 issue of Penthouse by clicking the image above or by clicking right here.

Warrior Wire: The Write Stuff

Penthouse, Warrior Wire

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Warrior Writers is an organization I first learned about after looking up veterans’ groups that needed volunteers. I got busy not long after contacting them, but I subscribed to their newsletter and followed what they were doing. Then, last year, when I was trying to come up with articles to pitch, I remembered them and reached out. I was excited to profile an organization full of writers, which I thought was an incredible addition the non-profit scene, but I was even more thrilled when I saw the list of members.

When I wrote my first Warrior Wire article, “War Songs,” back in 2008, I tried to get in touch with Garett Reppenhagen, who’d penned the Bouncing Souls’ song “Letter from Iraq.” Unfortunately, I could only find an old email address, and we failed to connect. I’d had him in the back of my mind ever since, and I kept wondering if I’d ever find another article to write where I could include him. Well, four years later, I finally got my chance, because he happened to be a participant in Warrior Writers.

Also on the list was Geoff Millard, whom I’d interviewed for that very first article I wrote. He’d been a really good interview, and we’d had a great chat back then, so I was looking forward to reconnecting. He didn’t disappoint.

One of the coolest things about this article, though, was getting to talk to these people one writer to another. Writing about writers was easy. And daunting. Because these guys (and ladies) would know if I fucked up. Still, it was nice to talk to them about how they get their ideas and inspiration and what drove them to writing. Some of them want to write professionally, while others are satisfied with keeping their journals private. Some are artists or writing coaches or have degrees in English literature, and others are volunteers or work in non-profits. What they all have in common—and what I share with them—is a need to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be) to express their feelings, either for themselves or for the world to read.

Since writing about Warrior Writers, I’ve discovered other similar writing groups, like Words After War, Veterans Writing Project, and Veterans Writing Workshop. Each has its own focus and goals, but they’re all equally worth checking out.

To read my article about Warrior Writers, from the February 2014 issue of Penthouse, you can click the image above.

Warrior Wire: At Their Service

Penthouse, Warrior Wire

Since I started writing for Penthouse‘s Warrior Wire column, I’ve really gotten to know a lot about the veterans community. I’ve always had an interest in vets’ issues because of my dad (a Vietnam vet) and my cousin (who did three tours during the Iraq war), but writing about it means I have to really know my shit.

Part of what I’ve learned in the past five years (my first Warrior Wire article, “War Songs,” was published in the March 2009 issue of Penthouse) is that there are a ton of organizations dedicated to helping vets with various aspects of their lives. Some provide financial aid, others are for health care, some fight for vet-friendly legislation, and still others are simply aimed at helping returning vets have a little fun. And there are, of course, the old standbys, the VFWs and IAVAs and American Legions, who do a little bit of everything. So when my editor asked me to put together a column of some of the best, I really had my work cut out for me.

To choose, I reached out to friends and Twitter followers who were veterans and who had experience with these groups. Then I went gung-ho on the research and dug up everything I could find. There’s a list in my notebook that’s at least several pages long, not to mention the various Post-its (paper and digital) full of names and links. I didn’t want to miss a single one.

Some were easy, like IAVA’s Rucksack program, the Honor Flight Network, and the Wounded Warrior Project. Others, like Vets in Film and Television (LA) and the GI Film Festival were projects I’d wanted to write about for a while but hadn’t been able to for one reason or another. And then there were groups that were entirely new to me but that I fell in love with.

Warriors & Quiet Waters is one that I discovered because of this article, but the more I learned about it, the more I wished I’d known about it sooner. Faye, who is one of the group’s few employees, talked to me about how WQW helps vets and what their mission is, and then she described the typical FX (fishing experience). It sounded like exactly what I was looking for. Then, a few weeks later, a documentary about WQW, Not Yet Begun to Fight, screened in NYC. I was there on opening night with the half-dozen other interested filmgoers, and got to talk to one of the participants. Seeing the film and hearing him describe the experience he’d had on his FX cemented it for me. How could I not include it?

After that, I spoke to DJ Skelton about Paradox Sports. Skelton was honored in Penthouse’s 2011 Badass Issue, and he already seemed pretty awesome. Then he told me about what PS does, helping injured vets by getting them involved in extreme outdoor activities like rock-climbing and ice-climbing. Holy hell! Hearing about how guys with one arm or one leg or prosthetic limbs are hauling ass up these mountains and cliffs was beyond inspiring. So of course they had to join the list.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The other organizations profiled in this piece are: National Veterans Wheelchair Games, Project Sanctuary, Songwriting With:Soldiers and Tunnel to Towers, but there are so many others who I just couldn’t fit.

If you’re a vet, you should check out all of these amazing organizations and see which ones fit your needs. And if you’re a civilian, consider donating time or money to the group that you most connect with. Even if you can only give a few bucks, every penny helps.

And keep sending me info on any groups I’ve left out here. Head on over to my Contact page and email, tweet, or tumbl me your favorites. Or comment below. And make sure to check out the full article from the January 2014 issue of Penthouse by clicking the picture above.

Warrior Wire: Rings of Fire

Penthouse, Warrior Wire

I don’t really remember when I first heard about burn pits, though I know I started researching for this article at least a year before it was published, maybe even earlier. I keep a file on my desk of research for stories I want to write, if I ever have the time or opportunity, and when I went through it last fall, I found a printout of a short article about burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. Next thing I knew, my editor had approved my pitch and I was knee-deep in research.

I spent more time reading and researching than I had in quite a while. It took me several months to do all that background work and interview everyone, and there were numerous updates that needed to be worked in as time went on. I wanted to make sure I packed this 1,500-word article as full of information as I could, because it really is an important issue. All in all, I think I spent six months working on this article, longer than anything else I’d ever written. (Generally, from conception to completion, I’m done in a few weeks, with the biggest lag coming from the difficulty of scheduling interviews.)
When the article went to the Penthouse fact-checker, she came by to get a list of my sources and all my supporting documentation, and I think she nearly had a heart attack when I gave her the long, long list of articles and interviews she’d need to check. Oops! But I also got to impress her. Everyone in the Penthouse editorial department is pretty news savvy, and we all watch CNN and MSNBC and all that jazz even more than we watch porn. After checking a few quotes with me, the fact-checker wanted to know which of the quotes came from interviews I’d done myself and which I’d borrowed from other sources. I told her all the quotes were from my own interviews except one (which of course had proper attribution), and she asked if it was Paul Rieckhoff’s quote. “No,” I told her, “I interviewed him myself. Always do. He’s the best.” She was surprised I’d gotten someone who’s a regular on all the big news shows to speak to me, and I got to tell her that I’ve interviewed him numerous times. She was understandably impressed. (Hell, I’m impressed every time I realize I get to speak to him, too.)
For me, that’s one of the coolest things about this job: having access to people I admire and getting to discuss the issues with them. Rieckhoff (founder of IAVA) has always been a great interview, and he always takes a few minutes to discuss my other story ideas with me or give me some ideas that he thinks would work. He’s been super supportive from my very first article, and it’s such an incredible honor to get to pick his brain. But I also get to talk to amazing guys from the VFW, like Joe Davis and Ryan Gallucci, who are doing incredible work for our nation’s veterans. Then there are people like Dr. Steve Coughlin and Dr. Anthony Szema, both of whom I expected to shoot me down but who readily agreed to be interviewed. To have these incredible minds on the other end of the line is always astonishing to me, and I love having the chance to learn from them.
I’ve never been interested in meeting celebrities, and aside from a few guys in bands who I interviewed years ago, I haven’t really dealt with them. Don’t get me wrong, all the “celebrities” I’ve met have been perfectly nice, and some of them I really enjoyed talking to (Serj Tankian will always stand out as the biggest celebrity I’ve interviewed, as well as the most interesting), but I don’t get all that excited by the prospect of dealing with famous people. To me, they’re just people. But the idea of interviewing someone who’s doing something important, someone who I know is smart and dedicated, that’s daunting as hell. I get so excited and so nervous. I pull late-night cram sessions to study before the interview, and I dress up—even for phone interviews, lest they hear the disshevelment in my voice—to make sure I look and feel as professional as possible. I set up an iPad full of notes in case I forget something while we’re talking, and I give myself pep talks right before I dial their number, reminding myself that I’m smart enough to hold my own. It’s a little cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs, but it works. And when I hang up the phone or walk out of the office, I always breathe the biggest sigh of relief, amazed that the person I was speaking to didn’t hang up on me or flee the interview as soon as I opened my mouth.
Anyway, you can read the results of some of my favorite interviews in this article about burn pits, “Rings of Fire,” from the October 2013 issue of Penthouse, by clicking right here.

Warrior Wire: Calendar Girl

Penthouse, Warrior Wire

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Click the picture to read the full article. 

Having written a handful of Warrior Wire columns, I was beginning to think that I’d always end up a little depressed from the work, and that my readers would always be a bit down after reading my articles. Of all the articles I’ve written—both those that have been published and those that are with my editor right now—I’m fairly certain that this is the only one with a truly upbeat tone. Writing about unemployment, poor health care, and burn pits is obviously not cheerful work, but even writing about veteran artists and writers has its down moments. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people about their post-traumatic stress, physical injuries, difficulties adjusting to civilian life, and the myriad other problems that come from serving in the military and going to war. That’s not to say there haven’t been bright spots in all my reporting, because there certainly have been, but there’s a lot of pain, too. Writing about Gina Elise and Pin-Ups for Vets, however, was the most cheerful experience I could have imagined.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Pin-Ups for Vets first came to my attention when a coworker spotted a video about the project on AOL. After watching the clip, I was a fan, and I knew I had to interview Gina. I was lucky enough to get a response within minutes of sending my request, and I had Gina on the phone first thing the following Monday. And while Monday-morning interviews can easily go bad, there was nothing but cheer coming through the wires when I talked to Gina.

The thing about Gina is that she’s happy. She’s smart, funny, sweet as peaches, and genuinely excited by the work she does. And the work she does is truly inspiring. If you read my article, you’ll get a good idea of why I’m so smitten with Gina and her Pin-Ups for Vets project, but I’m not the only one. In the course of writing the article, I asked for quotes from Gina’s fans, and I was bombarded. Everyone who’s had the pleasure of meeting her or receiving one of her calendars has something nice to say. I don’t think I’ve ever read so many positive comments about anything, ever. So rather than say anything further, I’m going to let Gina’s fans do the talking for me:

Nick Palmisciano, founder and CEO, Ranger Up: “What makes Pin-Ups for Vets special is Gina’s personal touch. When our troops are injured, especially when they are away from friends and family, it’s important for them to know someone cares. Without that human link, it’s very easy for a guy to start thinking no one cares, and this can lead to depression, which is a pandemic right now. When they see Gina and how genuine she is, they light up. The calendars she leaves with them are reminders that there is someone out there who not only cares about them but is working to make their lives better. For some guys, that spark of humanity can make all the difference. Plus, you know, the pictures are really hot.”

Retired Master Sergeant Jim Majors, US Air Force: “Pin-Ups for Vets is such an amazing program! The way that our veterans have been treated, mistreated and even forgotten is appalling and embarrassing, to say the least. The smiles Gina leaves behind at every VA hospital she visits are truly heartwarming. Having met her in person, I saw a tiny piece of what the hospitalized vets must see during those visits. That she is so devoted to helping our vets is . . . well, there are not enough words for it.”

Technical Sergeant Chris Short, US Air Force: “Any piece of home is a morale boost. When you’re away from not only your family and friends but the entirety of your culture for months upon months, you long for reminders of what and who you’re fighting for. Pin-Ups for Vets provides a healthy reminder of why you’re out there doing what you’re doing. Gina always supported me and my teams, and she continues to support me now that I’m out and in the VA system.”

Sergeant First Class Toby Nunn, US Army: “Sometimes the most simple gestures can have the most profound impact. A picture from home can transport a soldier mentally and emotionally and remind them why they are in the fight. Gina’s Pin-Ups for Vets does this exact thing, whether she is sending her awesome calendars overseas to us when we’re at the top of our game or visiting us in the hospital when we’re hurting and at the bottom. The calendars and visits are tokens of her support and make our lives better. She’s a vision of beauty, and her taking the time to make our lives better and brighter reminds us why we’re in the fight and gives us a reason to believe in our country and the great folks back home.”

Retired Master Sergeant Phillip M. Parker, US Air Force: “Gina is every bit as beautiful inside as she is on the outside, and she is quite possibly one of the kindest, most caring people I’ve ever met. The Pin-Ups for Vets program has brightened the lives of countless vets and troops downrange. I feel greatly privileged to have been able to meet and help someone who has made such an impact on the vets in the VA hospitals, and I feel blessed to be able to call her my friend.”

Retired First Sergeant Troy Steward, US Army: “Pin-Ups for Vets is a great example of patriotism at its best. Gina is a great American who took the gifts God gave her—her looks and personality—and is using them to not only lift the spirits of sick and wounded veterans, but also using her popularity to raise  money to provide rehab equipment for their long-term recovery. Pin-Ups for Vets not only helps veterans from all generations, but it plays on the sexy but tasteful nose art of World War II. I think that’s why Gina’s style is appealing to such a wide range of veterans, including women.”

Retired Sergeant First Class Michael Schlitz: “With the War on Terror going on for the last 11 years on multiple fronts, I feel the American people sometimes forget about veterans of past conflicts. We have tons of World War II and Vietnam veterans receiving care in different VA hospitals, but often times, “support the troops” non-profits only focus on wounded Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom veterans like myself. Gina and Pin-Ups for Vets focus on all veterans from every era, location and branch. This is a worthy organization giving back to those who deserve so much more. I am not the only person she has touched through her organization. If you really want to see the good she is doing, then follow her on Facebook, go to her webpage or sign up for her newsletter. Look at the pictures of the smiles on veterans’ faces. This will show the true impact of what Pin-Ups for Vets is doing. Look at the photos of the deployed troops and you can see that, for a moment, at least, they don’t care about the war, they’re just happy that someone at home is thinking about them. I wish more Americans were like Gina and were doing work like Pin-Ups for Vets. Most of all, I hope people continue to support her and the organization. I know I appreciate the hard work and effort she puts into it. It’s a great feeling to know that there are people who care that you served your nation. Not all heroes wear uniforms, and Gina is a hero in my book for everything she has done for my brothers and sisters in arms.”