Justin Jackson was deployed in Afghanistan for the third time with the U.S. Marine Corps in 2012. As a Bell Helicopter AH-1W Super Cobra pilot, this was his fourth combat deployment, all back-to-back (his first was to Iraq in 2008). By 2012, Jackson had worked with a variety of Marines — one being a Bell UH-1 Huey pilot, Seth Jordan. The two had met several years prior at Camp Pendleton in California, but they really got to know each other in 2011 when they were placed in the same Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA). And while deployed together in 2012, Jackson learned of an aspiration of Jordan’s.
“A group of us — Seth obviously included — were talking about what we were going to do when we go back home. If one thing comes out of deployments, it’s that you’re always talking about all the amazing things you’re going to do when you come home. You’re going to travel; you’re going to create this invention. None of it ever comes true — it’s just all deployment fantasy. You’re just trying to do something to pass the time,” Jackson said, adding that Seth’s idea of Dog Tag in the beginning was, “Hey, let’s go home and brew some beer. Maybe we can do little things to get together to remember the guys that they lost.”
While many in the group showed support for the idea, Jackson said it was ultimately chalked up to fantasy. But Jordan would be the first to say that he doesn’t consider himself a quitter. He would leave the Marine Corps a year before Jackson, and by 2013, Jordan presented Jackson with a logo and a concept. Jordan started a brewing company with some family members that year, kicked-off the Dog Tag Brewing brand in 2014 and attached a foundation to the company by the second half of 2015.
Dog Tag, based in Bozeman, Montana, has two parts: a brewing company and a foundation for Gold Star families. Each Legacy Lager comes in what the brewery calls a “Dedication Can.” It has the design of a dog tag bearing the name, hometown and other information of a fallen Marine whose family collaborates with Dog Tag Brewing Foundation. Dog Tag Brewing donates 100% of its after-tax profits to the Dog Tag Brewing Foundation, and, as of last fall, the beer is distributed nationally through Pabst Brewing Co. Those involved with Dog Tag, though, would say that the heart of the operation lies within its foundation.
The publicly supported, tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization provides legacy grants and free services and nonprofit consulting to families whose loved one(s) died while serving in the U.S. armed forces. When families want to start charities and scholarships in honor of lost loved ones, Dog Tag Brewing Foundation aims to help create and/or fund those initiatives. Jordan’s end goal was always to create a product that drives philanthropy. But he couldn’t do it alone. Making both sides of Dog Tag as efficient as possible would require him to build a larger team.
“Dog Tag was kind of born out of our own experiences,” Jordan said of his vision after deployment. “I bounced these ideas off some of the other [Marines] and many other folks who thought I was crazy. But those who thought I was crazy are still sticking around.”
Jackson, who never imagined Jordan would follow through on his “deployment fantasy,” was one of the Marines called in to the foundation by the brewery’s founder. He now serves as the chief relations officer the foundation.
A large part of his job involves meeting with Gold Star families and figuring out how Dog Tag can best support their initiatives. While Jackson serves on the front-end of the foundation, five other former Marine helicopter pilots serve on the backend on the foundation’s 10-member board of directors. Combined, each member of the board has served more than 40 deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, completed 390 combat patrols, flown more than 2,645 missions, spent 1,615 days at sea and led 1,100 troops. Each member, including Jordan as chairman of the board, served in the Marine Corps, U.S. Navy, U.S. Army or U.S. Special Forces. The Bell Huey, the Bell Super Cobra and the Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion are represented on the board by at least one pilot — former or in the reserve.
“I knew I wanted to work with super smart guys and gals I knew who were combat-tested, fought, came from the same mindset that I did, who are doing great things since they’ve gotten out of their service, and who still want to serve after they’ve taken the uniform off,” Jordan said. “I knew the majority of these guys from my time in — they were very well-respected. They were at the top of their game, and I knew what they were capable of. And just seeing what they’ve done in the capacity for Dog Tag has been amazing.”
Vice chairman of the board of directors is former Marine Bell AH-1W pilot DJ Fuller. He had met both Jordan and Jackson through the service and joined the foundation in 2015. Fuller is involved with items like governance, audit and recruitment. But though his duties may not seem glamorous, he said the job is undoubtedly rewarding. Of all the memorable moments in which the foundation has taken part, perhaps one of the most memorable is when the Dog Tag team brought some Gold Star family members to see the brewery and the Dedication Cans for the first time.
The first Legacy Lager launch included 32 different names, representative of the legacy projects with which the foundation was involved. Before public release, empty cans were stacked on top of each other on pallets, and families were able to walk through the rows to look for their loved ones and to learn about others.
“To watch these families walk through the aisles and look for their son or daughter or husband or brother, and find them — and the emotional moment that I know that was for them, it was a very heavy experience, to say the least,” said Fuller. “It was pretty amazing at the same time, because their name on that can means so much more than just their name being there. For some of these families all they have every day is to wake up in the morning and run their foundation in honor of their loved ones. The can represents to them all the hard work and all the memories, good and bad, that have gone into creating that [memorial]. They know that with the can, all those feelings that they have can also be remembered in every household in America. When someone raises their can, they’re toasting to someone that they may not have known, but now there’s a name that they can research a little bit and very quickly they can understand more about that person’s foundation or what their family is doing to give back.”
Some members of the general public may be accustomed to toasting exclusively for joyous occasions. Jackson said he understands that the idea of toasting a warrior who died tragically while serving the military could seem inappropriate. It’s a notion he’d like to change. A time-honored tradition in the military, Jackson explained, is to honor the fallen by toasting them with an alcoholic beverage. He wants civilians to feel comfortable doing the same. Instead of viewing the death of a serviceman or woman as a tragedy and using it to fuel negativity, the public should “pivot,” as Jackson said, and celebrate who they were and what they did for the nation.
“What we really hope to do with Dog Tag is reinvent the toast. And that reinvention, to me, means we take something that is very common in the military and extend that tradition,” Jackson said. “It’s OK to do that — in fact, we need to. Not only do the families want it, but as Americans, we need to do that. So that reinvention of the toast is really an opportunity to extend to the rest of America this notion that we honor our fallen warriors by remembering them, saying their names and making sure that their memory is never forgotten.”
Giving the public a way to engage with the memories of America’s fallen warriors is important to Jordan, too. Although he aims to support Gold Star family initiatives that are working at the local level, he wants to spread awareness of the memorial project, and the fallen warrior to whom its dedicated, to the whole country. The KRV Memorial Award Fund was founded in 2010 in honor of Captain Kyle R. Van De Giesen, a U.S. Marine Corps Bell Super Cobra pilot who was killed in a 2009 helicopter crash just weeks before coming home from Afghanistan. His widow, Megan Van De Giesen, was among those walking through the aisles of empty Legacy Lager cans. She said it’s very special knowing Kyle’s name is reaching households across the country.
“The messages I get and the people that contact me and send me pictures — people are so excited that they found one of Kyle’s cans. It’s just another way for Kyle’s name, and who he was and what he did, to be remembered,” Megan said.
The KRV fund facilitates projects in Kyle’s hometown community of North Attleboro, Massachusetts. It has been able to donate elements to a local YMCA climbing/ropes challenge course that was dedicated to Kyle shortly after his death. It has also established numerous high school scholarships and other fundraising events. Dog Tag has awarded grants to support awareness efforts and some events. So far, the fund has already raised 500% more than the initial Legacy Grant given by Dog Tag.
Kyle knew both Jordan and Jackson. Kyle’s death is something Jackson said would stay in his memory; Kyle was an instructor pilot of his and they were deployed together in 2009.
“It’s hard when you know you’ve lost somebody. We can’t bring them back, and that’s a hard thing for us to realize. But the next best thing we can do is honor their legacy, remember them and toast them, which is the whole idea behind Dog Tag,” Jackson said.
In February, Dog Tag Brewing Foundation announced 27 grant recipients representing 18 states for the year. For these recipients, the foundation is giving $114,700. Although the Marine Corps is the only military branch that has granted Dog Tag permission to use its likeness on Dedication Cans, Dog Tag grants are open to Gold Star families from any branch of the military. To date, the foundation has granted more than $238,000 to support the legacy projects of 51 families in 24 states. And Jordan wants to keep growing.
“I want to raise as much money, and hold as many events, and tell as many different stories as I possibly can because I think it’s worth it,” Jordan said. “When we get to the point where we’re not doing those things, I think we can talk about folding it up.
“This product is meant to start the conversation about what remembrance looks like and then how people can get involved.” R&WI