Alex Horton: Be Bold With Your Writing

Alex Horton is a national reporter for Stars and Stripes, The U.S. military’s independent news source, featuring exclusive reports from Afghanistan, Europe and the Far East. Alex’s storytelling and hard hitting writing style has been featured in the Atlantic, Washington Post, and other national outlets. You can follow him @alexhortonTX on Twitter.

What inspired you to be a writer and tell stories?

I never knew I wanted to be a writer until it started coming out of me. I had this vague sense of storytelling in high school but didn’t find any avenues to do it. I was more interested in subjects like history, reading books, but not into doing the homework or assignments. Wth English class, I failed freshman and sophomore English class because I was disinterested in the work but I was engaged on the Rotten Tomatoes message board and reading all the comments. They have a pretty robust film community, and my school didn’t have any film classes, so I ended up reading a bunch of comments about different genres of film and movies. It got me to start watching different films, and that was the first type of storytelling medium I was engaged in. Later on, that affected my writing because I have more of a cinematic viewpoint. I see things in depths and scales rather than a person that stands in a place near things. It’s the way I see the world now because of my intent interest in film.

For writing, I got my start writing on a blog (The Army of Dude) in the Army before I deployed. It was goofing off about the absurdities of enlisted life in the Army. I was 20 years old, and the military was my first real job, and I was learning about life all at once. When I deployed, the blog became a digital journal of what I did and saw in combat. After awhile, it started to form the way I wrote because I was writing more than my parents and relatives. I saw I was getting hits from all over the world. I understood that these people didn’t know who I was so I had to change the scope of how I was writing because of that. And that’s how I got my start.

A common fear for people with writing is that they are afraid of backlash, negative commentary about their opinions. You have developed a reputation for being strong and opinionated as a writer and on social media. Did you start out being fearful about voicing yourself on social media or your blog at first?

I don’t think I have ever been fearful or concerned about what I wrote. Looking back it, some of that stuff is pretty charged and frustrating time to be in the Army in the war. It was a different time for how people felt with moral and they way the war was going. A lot of people in my unit felt the same way just didn’t have an avenue to do it. That was the reason the blog was anonymous so that I could say those things, but I didn’t think about the second or third world effects of my writing. I never thought about it; I just kept writing though I was wondering what happens if this comes back to me what happens if they find out from a very specific story I wrote and find out it’s me?

The thing about criticism is that it’s hard because when you have something like a blog, it feels like an open knife fight. Someone can read you and say wow this is real, this is authentic and then if you go and read the comments, they’ll say this is completely untrue, and this guy doesn’t know what he is talking about. It doesn’t help you sell or value in your voice when that happens, so it is a concern.

When you worked for the VA and were part of the team that launched their blog, they have a historically bad reputation with the country. You had this mission to rebrand one of the most hated institutions in the country. What were some of the challenges of trying to change the narrative about the VA and how did you navigate those?

We didn’t see too much of a rebrand; rather we were focusing on how could we fix issues that involve communications, how do veterans communicate with the VA and vice versa. At the time, The two-way communication street was unsustainable. The only way the VA would communicate with you was either through mail or a phone call.

When we built the team, we had a few central acknowledgments and understandings. First, people had a viewpoint of the VA whether warranted or unwarranted was adversarial. We started with that notion that we have to build trust and legitimacy. We had to acknowledge that this was a problem and that veterans don’t trust the VA because they aren’t getting the care they needed or want. We built our communications apparatus with that in mind and made an effort to communicate quickly with quality content that we knew people wanted. Some of our most successful content was stuff about VA claims, rumors around wait times and here is a no-nonsense guide on how to get your claim in or we hear you talking about your claims on the VA Facebook page, here’s what we are doing about it.

There were a lot of things that people didn’t see with our efforts with fixing GI bill, appointment issues that were done offline and through backdoor channels. After about a year of being on all these digital platforms, we were able to go in and muscle our way in and say that this is bad that this was happening so publicly, we have to fix it for these people. We were like unofficial claim managers where we would get through the system, but we would throw our weight around as public affairs. Before, it was just public affairs responding to the media and newspaper and other governments. Now we were the intermediaries between veterans and the system they couldn’t access. Our philosophy was to start with the veteran. It was worthwhile because we were making those little steps to improve the perception of the VA to where people were changing their stance. We did fail a lot because we weren’t healthcare providers and there was only so much we could do as communicators, but some our successes came because of the pressure we were able to put on the people that were able to fix and handle those problems from veterans.

There was a story about you being raided by the Fairfax, VA Police. You ended up tweeting out what happened to you, and it caught fire online. Then, you were asked to write your take for the Washington Post, and it ended up being a tremendous piece that was shared across the internet. What were your feelings about what happened to you and how did you use those feelings to craft such a strong, compelling take on police protocol knowing that it would cause tons of controversy and conversation?

I was living in Alexandria, VA at the time and had this dishwasher that was leaking causing this mold and damage to my apartment. The apartment complex said it was going to take a week to fix it. Instead of putting me in a hotel, they put me in a model unit in the building next door. When I came home from a night out, I didn’t make sure the door was closed behind me, and it didn’t shut properly. Sunday morning, this guy who lived across from the unit I was staying in, noticed that the door wasn’t shut properly and it looked suspicious to him because no one was supposed to be living there and he didn’t know that I was temporary. The guy wanders in and sees me sleeping in the bed and immediately calls 911 reporting that there was a squatter in the bed. The county cops respond to the call and came into the room with their pistols drawn leveled right at me, barking orders while I was in bed. One of them jumped onto the bed, pointed his pistol right at me, handcuffed me and dragged me off the bed as I am still in my boxers and demanded to know why I was there.

And that was an interesting way to wake up on a Sunday morning. This phases me because when something like this happens and all of the sudden cops are swarming you, you start to go through all these possible felonies that you could have committed. But I realized that I did nothing wrong and that this was all a mistake, and I had an good explanation for all of this. I told them what was going on and they contacted the building management and saw that it was a mistake. They took off the cuffs, saw that it was a mistake but didn’t apologize, and left.

I was so dazed and wondering why did this happen and why did these cops come in with their guns drawn when I know that for a fact that is the first step in a lethal accident is to have a loaded gun and my situation was not a lethal accident. So the police got the call wrong, chose to come into the place I was staying, with their guns drawn, coming in with the greatest amount of force without anything in between that to justify the force they used.

I kept asking myself why did they do this? Why wasn’t there something in between from knocking on the apartment door to the police drawing pistols and pointing them at me like its urban combat?

I texted a couple of friends after they left telling them what I just happened to me and started right afterward tweeting out what had happened me. An hour later, I started writing the Washington Post police asking those questions and making the comparison to counterinsurgency where sometimes the most dangerous thing is to protect yourself to the point where you could create a lot of hostility and standoff with the community.

You have to try other means like taking a step back, understanding grievances and using restraint as a weapon. Those were things that didn’t happen in Ferguson, didn’t happen in Baltimore with Freddie Gray, didn’t happen in some places where people are starting to lose confidence in their police departments. Police posture and security were very deliberate in protecting themselves than protecting others which led to a series of incidents.

What’s a piece of advice you would give to someone that is afraid to speak their mind on social media or blog?

You don’t get anywhere with just middle ground writing where you don’t take a stand. No good writing comes from being vanilla or ordinary. You have to put yourself out there to succeed. If you put some heart into it, it’s risky, but it ends up paying off. No one ever got anywhere doing things half ass, and good writing means challenging, complex, soulful full of heart and guts. If you hold back because you want to protect yourself and don’t want to get your ego bruised, you’re not going to get very far.

You just have to figure out what is important to you.