2019 marks the first full calendar year of Coffee or Die, and we couldn’t be more proud of the stories we captured. Our small but determined team of editors and writers, which reaches from New Hampshire to California, Alaska to Texas, and Germany to Southeast Asia, started out the year with an aim to inform, entertain, and bring you content that you couldn’t find anywhere else — and we’re feeling pretty good about what we came up with. From stunning military history pieces and long-form features to in-depth gear reviews, our stories stood out from the crowd with a combination of on-the-ground reporting and tireless research, stunning original photography, incredible illustrations, and video content that can’t be found anywhere else.
And we’re not slowing down. In 2020, we’ll be upping the ante with an expansion of our staff, tripling our slate of original content, and going to even more extreme corners of the earth for our Coffee or Die episodic web series. It almost goes without saying at this point, but make sure you’re subscribed to our weekly email so that you don’t miss a single story, and subscribe to our new Coffee or Die YouTube channel so you don’t miss any of our new videos.
In no particular order, these are our Top 12 stories of 2019. It was a nearly impossible task to narrow down this list to just 12, but these are the stories you read the most or we felt deserved another look. From “The Legend of Shannon Kent” — which profiles an American warrior killed in Syria while fighting ISIS — to literary and film analysis (“How Hemingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Toll’ Provides Insight into Modern Special Forces,” “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About ‘Rambo’: A Retrospective”), they stand as a solid representation of who we are — and what we think our readers care about. Enjoy reading — or re-reading — and we’ll see you in 2020!
Not only our most popular article of the year, but “The Legend of Chief Shannon Kent” by Coffee or Die editor Marty Skovlund, Jr. was an important story that recapped the extraordinary life of one of our nation’s most impressive warriors. Senior Chief Petty Officer Kent was killed in action on Jan. 16, 2019, while hunting the remnants of ISIS leadership in Syria. Within weeks, Skovlund was on the ground in Virginia to conduct exclusive interviews with Kent’s friends and family and attend her memorial at the U.S. Naval Academy. In true Coffee or Die tradition, his reporting expertly threaded the needle between telling Kent’s story while avoiding the sensitive details of her work at one of the military’s most secretive special operations units. The result was a long-form feature that we would argue not only memorializes a life well-lived, but inspires as well. Skovlund is currently working with Kent’s Gold Star husband to turn this article into a book — look for it in 2021!
At Coffee or Die, we pride ourselves on finding stories that not only inform and entertain, but also smash tired tropes about who veterans are and what they do after their service to our great nation. That’s exactly what “Burning Man Through the Eyes of an Army Sniper” did. Former U.S. Army sniper and combat veteran turned photographer Nick Betts’ emotional deep dive into his experience at Burning Man featured stirring prose and lifted the curtain on a festival that, like veterans, is often misunderstood by outsiders. Betts’ article, which featured incredible photography, was read by nearly 100,000 people and embraced by sand-covered Burners and military veterans (also sand-covered?) alike. If you’re looking for an experiential read that will take you to a different world, we highly recommend “Burning Man Through the Eyes of an Army Sniper.”
Inform and entertain — it’s what we do. While some might argue that we do the former more than the latter, our satire article “14 Pics that Prove Delta Force Operators are Actually Hipsters” is a notable exception. This over-the-top humor piece blends old-school operator photos with corny stock images with the intent of poking a little fun (respectfully, of course!) at the best of the best. And from what we heard from those “behind the fence,” this article was well received — which was really awesome to hear. That kind of feedback is ultimately why we do what we do, and it’s the only feedback we really care about if we’re being honest!
Ranger, author, and now Black Rifle Coffee Company social media manager Luke Ryan was a new addition to the team in 2019, but he didn’t waste any time making his mark with articles like the thoughtful and well-written “How Hemingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ Provides Insight into Modern Special Forces.” Ryan blended his insightful literary analysis with first-hand knowledge of modern special operations to craft an article that was a hit with everyone from BRCC CEO Evan Hafer to the tens of thousands of Coffee or Die readers who took the time to take it in. Whether you’re a Hemingway fan, a military history enthusiast, or just appreciate prose with a punch, you definitely need to check out this piece.
Coffee or Die prides itself on going where others won’t to tell the stories we think need to be heard. That ethos has sent our writers everywhere from the mountains of Afghanistan to the snow-covered plains of Nebraska, and, in this case, the highways of war-torn Syria. Kevin Knodell’s long-form feature “I Took a Road Trip Through Syria — And This is What I Saw” is best described as Hunter S. Thompson meets Jack Kerouac with a dash of war-time Hemingway. This epic road trip story not only gave readers a more nuanced view of Syria (and the war that rages there) than what they receive from mainstream news outlets, but it was a master class in patient, thoughtful storytelling. Readers who cautiously clicked on the admittedly clickbait-y title were rewarded with an immersive literary experience that expertly wove first-hand experience with fact, and ground truth backed up by original photos.
When one thinks of the Rambo franchise, they typically think of films with a high body count, lots of explosions, and excessive gore. However, its roots are more complicated than that. “Rambo” is based on a book by David Morrell, and the original story is about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the Vietnam War, and the complexities of combat veterans trying to reintegrate into civilian life. Popular culture is a core tenet of American living — movies, television, music — it’s a way of expressing all sorts of complex ideas in the form of fiction. At Coffee or Die, we strive to highlight the corners of pop culture that we feel are relevant and important to the things we hold dear. “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About ‘Rambo’: A Retrospective” is the epitome of our passion for the overlap between the military and veteran community, and the art of filmmaking.
One of Coffee or Die’s more prolific writers, contributing editor Maggie BenZvi expertly explored the devastation that occurred in the early 1990s in Rwanda through the eyes of the country’s foremost Western expert and advocate, the late Dr. Alison Des Forges. In “25 Years Later: A Look at the Genocide in Rwanda And the Woman Who Tried to Prevent It,” BenZvi highlights the policies that prevented U.S. intervention as well as the personal battle of Des Forges and her family as genocide raged throughout Rwanda — but she elevates the story by weaving in her personal connection with Des Forges. The result is an article that demonstrates the large and small impacts one person can have on the world, from fighting policies on a national and global level to teaching preschoolers geography, while looking at — and sometimes questioning — the global political and humanitarian obligations of the United States.
One of our most underserved yet vitally important verticals is our section featuring first responder stories. First responders are typically the most criticized and under appreciated groups of uniformed civil servants, so when paramedic-turned-writer and photographer Joshua Skovlund pitched us an idea that not only humanized the grueling scenarios paramedics face on a daily (and nightly) basis, but also showed the life-or-death decisions they need to make at a moment’s notice, we didn’t hesitate to give him the green light. The result, “The Paramedics That Fought for Their Lives to Save an MS-13 Gang Member,” was an impressive story that put readers in the moment and forced them to think, What would I do? Skovlund, who just finished up his rookie year as a journalist, will continue writing about first responders in 2020 — and we can’t wait to see what he does next!
Certain people are responsible for building the America we know and love today. Many of those are military veterans, others are prolific businessmen, and others still run successful nonprofits — a few have done all three. “The Incredible True Story of How the Heir to Walmart Served in MACV-SOG in Vietnam” tells the tale of John Thomas Walton, son of Walmart founder Sam Walton. John Walton served as a Special Forces operator alongside John Stryker Meyer in the legendary MACV-SOG efforts during the Vietnam War. Afterward, he became a successful entrepreneur and helped countless children through his nonprofits. Forming today’s United States has taken untold efforts from people just like John Walton, giving their entire lives to the betterment of their own position, those around them, and the country in which they reside. Matt Fratus, Coffee or Die‘s resident historian, takes us back as only he can as we dive deep into Walton’s life and look at the elements that made him so successful.
If you grew up listening to the rock stations of the early aughts, you know him as the lead singer of Staind. But today, Aaron Lewis is a country musician — and though he has continued to find success, that transition hasn’t been without its difficulties. Coffee or Die’s Chris Hart gained exclusive access to Lewis before a 2019 show in Des Moines, Iowa. In “The Musical Transformation of Aaron Lewis,” the multi-platinum artist opens up about returning to the music of his youth and the struggles he has faced as an outsider in the country music industry. Hart sat on Lewis’ tour bus for more than an hour talking about being creative, music, touring, and more. Whether you’re a fan of Lewis or just music in general, this is a must-read!
“If it bleeds, it leads” is the mantra of many news publications, and when there is no blood, any bad news will do. But here at Coffee or Die, we love nothing more than highlighting the badass stuff that veterans are doing in an attempt to inspire and motivate our readership. Luke Ryan’s recent “Former Army Ranger Crushes World Record for Pull Ups in a Day” did exactly that by shining a spotlight on former Army Ranger Brandon Tucker and his attempt to break a Guinness World Record. With an exclusive interview, Ryan reported a story that, within days of publication, cracked our list of top five most-read articles of 2019. It just goes to show that people do want to see the good in the world — we just need more writers like Ryan who are willing to report it!
Coffee or Die isn’t a “breaking news” publication at this point, but we occasionally take on coverage of issues that we think are especially pertinent to the military and veteran communities. The fight to give veterans the right to sue the government for medical malpractice was one of those issues. Maggie BenZvi, who has yet to meet a topic she couldn’t expertly report on and creatively write, took on our Feres Doctrine coverage with vigor and shed a light on a struggle that ultimately resulted in an expansion of veteran’s rights. She penned two stories on the topic: “Green Beret with Terminal Cancer Fights to Sue the Military for Medical Malpractice” and “The Long and Difficult Road to Changing Feres Doctrine.” We highly recommend both!
We couldn’t include every story we loved in this list, but there are a few that just barely missed the cut. We traveled to Normandy, France, for the 75th anniversary of D-Day and published daily dispatches to make readers (and viewers) feel like they were there with us; check out dispatches one, two, three, four, five, and six! Martin Stokes traveled to Vietnam and wrote this poignant piece on how the post-conflict country turned to coffee to revitalize its economy. Garland Kennedy, who recently moved to Alaska, reported on a local logging issue that may have long-reaching effects on all of us. Karen Hunter, who you may recognize from our top-notch gun and gear reviews, gave us an exclusive and fascinating look inside the U.S. military’s largest ammunition plant. Finally, editor Marty Skovlund Jr. and managing editor Katie McCarthy teamed up to interview former U.S. Navy SEAL turned congressman Dan Crenshaw for a fascinating addition to our recurring “11 Questions & A Cup of Coffee” series.
Cheers to a new year, Coffee or Die readers! We’ll see you in 2020!
Oh, and if reading isn’t your thing — looking at you, Marines 😉 — here’s a few of our favorite Coffee or Die videos from 2019: