How a U.S. Army veteran found a way to share his experiences with the world
An interview with writer Benjamin Sledge, whose Medium stories on mental health and military service led to a book and helped build a community
Benjamin Sledge is a mental health advocate and U.S. Army veteran who uses Medium to reflect on his experiences at war — and to help fellow veterans feel less alone. As a member of the U.S. Army’s Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command, Sledge received a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, and two Army Commendation Medals for his actions overseas. His perspectives on mental health, religion, and America’s fraught relationship with its own veterans have resonated with millions of readers and led to a memoir published last year based on his Medium writing.
I recently spoke with Sledge about how he got started on Medium, the diverse readership he’s built, and how his essays have sparked wide-ranging conversations about everything from faith to parenting to America’s turbulent withdrawal from Afghanistan. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.
Harris Sockel: Let’s start at the beginning. What brought you to Medium?
Benjamin Sledge: I started writing on Medium in 2016. At the time, I was working for a nonprofit organization called HeartSupport, which raises awareness about depression, anxiety, and addiction. We were publishing articles on a WordPress blog and looking for a platform that would help us reach a wider audience — and I kept hearing about Medium. Eventually, I decided to test it out by crossposting a few of my own stories. They ended up reaching a much wider audience on Medium than they had on our blog (the SEO was also better!). I eventually convinced my colleagues at HeartSupport to make the switch, and we moved our entire blog to Medium soon after.
After I’d been on Medium for a while, I started self-publishing my own stories (outside of HeartSupport) because I realized Medium was so much more than any one publication. I wrote about mental health, relationships, fatherhood, and my experience losing friends in combat.
Slowly but surely, my audience began to grow. I stuck with it. Ultimately, it led to opportunities to write for other outlets and a book — it’s been an incredible journey!
HS: How long did you serve in the military and what was your role there?
BS: My brother and I wanted to serve predominantly as a way to pay for college. My parents both went to college, and they wanted us to attend college, too — but we came from a lower middle-class background and they didn’t have the money.
I enlisted in 1999. It was peacetime for those first few years, but after 9/11 all my training kicked into high gear. I went through the U.S. Army’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School and then came home for about three months. From there, I left for a Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, came home for three months again, and received orders to deploy to Afghanistan. I was in combat there for nine months, came home for just under two years, and then deployed to Iraq for nearly 15 months during the surge from 2006 to 2007.
HS: What prompted you to start writing about your military service on Medium?
BS: A few years ago, a friend of mine started a WordPress blog to chronicle our time in Iraq. I asked him why he’d decided to blog about it, and he said, “I want my kids to know what happened. I know my memory will probably fade in the future, so I’m trying to keep it fresh.” I was already on Medium by then, and hearing this made me want to start writing about my own experience in combat.
I should preface this by saying: In my experience, most soldiers (including myself, at first) are pretty reluctant to share their experiences in war. When you’re discharged, you kind of agree to become part of this silent brotherhood. You shy away from discussing your experiences because, if you’re not careful, it can come off like you’re gloating and callous about human life. I’d start to tell some of my war stories and people would get really uncomfortable, force a smile, not know what to say. Subconsciously, this type of response communicates to combat veterans: “Hey, maybe you shouldn’t talk about this.” You just kind of shut down. When I came home from Iraq, I thought to myself, “I’m just going to get a job and put all this stuff behind me.”
But after reading my friend’s blog, I was inspired to write an article for Memorial Day a few years ago: “The Conversation We Refuse to Have About War and Our Veterans.” After I pressed Publish on Medium, the response was overwhelming. Publications like SOFREP (which goes out to lots of military veterans) were linking to it. The essay focused on “moral injury,” or the psychological damage that occurs when you have to do things that violate your sense of right and wrong (which is a lot of what you do in combat). People really seemed to resonate with it. It’s received almost 500,000 reads so far, and that essay eventually became part of my book.
The Conversation We Refuse to Have About War and Our Veterans
Veterans bear the burden of war long after they leave the battlefield. It’s time for America to acknowledge it.
HS: I remember reading that! It started such an important conversation. And I know you’ve written a lot on the war since then — I remember one moving essay in particular about your frustrations with how the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021.
BS: Right. So, when I served in Iraq I was working in Ramadi. At the time, it was the most violent city on Earth. Ramadi accounted for half of all U.S. Marine Corps deaths between 2006–2007, and half of all daily attacks that happened in Iraq. I worked so hard to stabilize Ramadi, and then it fell to ISIS in 2015. Everything I’d worked for just went to nil. And honestly, I was okay with it at the time. I got over it.
But when the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021… I lost it. It was probably a combination of the disastrous way we pulled out and the fact that the wars were finally over, but it just threw me for a really bad loop. The comparison to Vietnam is an easy one to make. You look at the photos of the fall of Saigon and then the fall of Afghanistan from the embassy… and they’re identical. It’s creepy.
I started wandering around my house at all hours of the night. All of a sudden, I’m calling all my buddies, my buddies are calling me, we’re laughing, we’re crying, we’re furious. We don’t know what to think. Then I start calling my Vietnam vet buddies, and I’m just like, “Is this what it was like?” They’re like, “It’s exactly what it was like. I’m sorry.” So, I ended up back in counseling because my wife was like, “You’re a crazy person.” I wouldn’t sleep. I started drinking again, which was not a good sign. I’ll still go out and have beers, but this was different. This was drinking to fall asleep. I was in a really bad spot, and I wrote about it. I titled that article “This Is My Vietnam” because that’s how it felt.
This Is My Vietnam
An Afghanistan veteran weighs in on whether what we did mattered in the ‘Forever War’
HS: Yeah. It sounds like you have a strong network of other veterans, right? That seems critical, especially after all you’ve experienced together.
BS: I’m lucky to have that network, but I don’t think most of us do — I think a lot of us isolate, and that’s the problem I’m trying to solve through my writing. That’s also part of why I moved from Austin to Colorado Springs: I wanted to live next to a military installation and be around those guys and then impact other veterans. Now, I interact with other veterans almost daily. So many veterans struggle in silence. I’m lucky enough to have a community now, and I encourage all the vets I know to reach out, make connections, find their tribe.
I tackle a lot of topics on Medium — everything from religion and faith to mental health and the military. Mostly, I just want people to feel less alone.
HS: How did the book come about? Did you always want to write a book about your experience overseas?
BS: Honestly, it wasn’t something I was planning on. But eventually, after I’d been publishing on Medium for a few years, a few literary agents reached out to me. I didn’t connect with the first few, but soon I heard from someone who seemed like a good fit. She’d helped a few New York Times bestsellers get published, and she worked predominantly with food writers but was looking to expand her roster. I worked with her to define the scope of the book. From there, we worked on a proposal and started pitching to publishers.
HS: What’s the focus of your book? How is it different from other books about war?
BS: After the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan, most of the books I was seeing about war were from Navy SEALs. As veterans we like to joke, “Oh, you’re a Navy SEAL? You’ll get a book deal. It’ll turn into a bestseller.” But I hadn’t read anything by soldiers with my experience — people who were just low-level grunts in Iraq or Afghanistan. None of us felt like our stories had been told.
And a lot of the books about war were what I’d call “war porn.” They were very jingoistic and action-packed. I’d read those books and think, “Man, that really wasn’t my experience.” I was afraid. I made some very bad calls. I wasn’t always the greatest soldier. War was often boring. The line between right and wrong was fuzzy. I wanted to give people a more accurate picture of what serving in these two wars was really like — especially because the U.S. (and the world) spent so much money and time on them over the last 20 years. In many ways, the historical record on Afghanistan and Iraq is still being written.
HS: Why do you still write on Medium? What does the Medium community mean to you?
BS: I was once talking to another Medium writer about the platform. He said something like, “It’s like a great American newsstand.” It’s the intersection of all these publications and authors coming in with different ideologies and thoughts, and they’re creating really great work. Together, you get such a wide (and deep!) range of thinking and perspectives.
To me, what’s most special is the fact that anyone can rise from the bottom to the top. Anyone can find an audience, it just takes a single story. That’s really where Medium’s star rises. It’s about quality over quantity. It just really depends on, first: Do you have the work ethic and drive? And, second: Are you willing to constantly improve and grow yourself? Third: Can you tell a story? Because if so, then you may start with zero followers just like I did. But you may have a hit piece that gets picked up by the Boost Program and then from there, you’re on your way to the races.
HS: You’re a verified author now. How do you feel about featuring your book on your Medium profile?
BS: From my point of view, author verification is a nice way to help my readers create a deeper connection with me. If they like my writing on Medium, maybe they’ll like my book too. It’s very visible on my profile, and I’m able to use that as a place to point people. Anyone who’s worked with a publisher knows they’re very bullish on promotion, so the verification feature definitely helps there.
And aside from verification, I did use Medium to promote the book when it was coming out — I dropped three exclusive snippets from the book to help people figure out whether they might be interested in preordering. Actually, the Military Times happened to read one of the snippets that I posted on Medium and then did an interview with me. That led to another interview with Veteran TV, and a third interview with Marcus Luttrell’s Team Never Quit podcast. All of that was a direct result of posting a few book excerpts on Medium. It was kind of a snowball effect, and I’m really grateful for it.
HS: What’s your relationship with your readers? Are you writing primarily for other vets, or is your readership wider than that?
BS: It’s all over the map! A few veterans, but lots of folks who’ve never served and don’t know anyone who has. I want people to feel they belong in my stories’ responses section regardless of who they are, what they believe, or their background. I make a point to connect with as many people who respond to my work as possible — I try not to block anyone, even when they’re mean, hurtful, or I disagree with them. I want my life to be an example of kindness and grace especially since most people don’t get to experience that online.
HS: Any Medium writers or publications you’d recommend?
BS: I’m a big fan of Ryan Holiday’s work. I met him randomly in Austin, Texas, once, and he was kind enough to join me for lunch. We talked about the craft of writing and his approach toward business and personal development. I really love his work. He writes a lot about Stoicism, but I think what he has to say is really solid advice just from a human standpoint.
Speaking of writing, the crew at The Writing Cooperative are always sharing really useful perspectives on craft. I’m an avid reader of their stories. And a friend of mine named Sandra Wendel also writes on Medium. She wrote a guide to book editing and she’s a verified book author, too.
I’d also recommend Sarah Paris: Her humor is so enjoyable, and she also lives here in Colorado Springs (we had coffee once!). I love John Gorman’s essays as well. He’s written some fascinating think pieces and personal stories — he has a sort of gonzo journalism style sometimes, like in this incredible longread about depression, ketamine treatment, and mental health.
Lastly, I’d recommend Colin Horgan and Bryan Lane. Colin writes about technology, social media, and the exploding landscape of generative AI. Bryan has some real expertise and I love his work — he’s a fellow veteran and has worked for the White House on AI and now for the FDIC.
HS: Any advice for writers who are just getting started on Medium?
BS: I recently joined the Boost program as a curator (anyone can apply to join), so lately I’ve been on the lookout for new writers on Medium with something important to say. I’m really trying to dig through tags to find great stories no one has seen yet. I’ll check the “/latest” tab in tags that interest me. I’m looking for those thought-provoking, engaging pieces. I’m looking for writers with smaller audiences who I can help grow.
I mean, I know how impactful this platform can be for writers because I’ve experienced it myself. If you would’ve said to me back in 2016, “You’re going to be an award-winning book author” I would’ve laughed in your face. I’ve grown so much since then, in so many ways. I’m grateful to the readers here, and to this platform for helping me grow. I’m excited to help even more people who are sharing their ideas and experiences on Medium.
Also in this series:
- How Google data scientist Cassie Kozyrkov found success (and a fulfilling creative outlet) on Medium
- How Kaki Okumura’s Medium essays led to a book on health and human psychology
- How Thomas Smith successfully launched a new AI publication on Medium
- How Devon Price redefined ‘lazy’ and turned his Medium essay into a book
Who should we interview next? Let us know in the responses. And, if you’re inspired to write on Medium, get started.