After Marine Sgt. Thomas ("TJ") Brennan was hit by the blast from a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan in 2010, he suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him unable to recall much of his immediate past — including, at times, the name of his own daughter.
"When I got blown up, it erased a lot of my memories," Brennan says.
Brennan began therapies to address his TBI. He used the 200 letters he had exchanged with his wife to put together a broad narrative of his time at war. When it came to the grenade blast itself, Brennan pieced together the sequence of events surrounding his injury with the help of Finbarr O'Reilly, a photographer who had embedded with Brennan's unit in Afghanistan.
"I have the whole sequence documented of him," O'Reilly says. "One of the things I ... [photographed] was this Afghan national policeman who fired the rocket that ultimately went astray and blew up very close to TJ, knocking him unconscious ... and the explosion afterwards, and the guys who went to recover TJ."
Back in the U.S., both men struggled with the aftereffects of war. Brennan suffered from PTSD and debilitating depression, while O'Reilly grappled with the psychological toll of years spent documenting human brutality in conflict zones across the world. Together, they collaborated on a memoir, called Shooting Ghosts, about what Brennan refers to as the "invisible injuries" of war.
On why O'Reilly pursued photojournalism and how much of it is about the thrill of adventure
Finbarr O'Reilly: I think, on some level, if we're entirely honest with ourselves as photographers, yes, we do want adventure. We do seek out that thrill. The fact that that impulse matches with something that is considered a noble calling — truth-telling, or photojournalism as a profession — these are all worthy things to do, but it does draw people, such as myself, who did go in search of things that would give us a sense of purpose and meaning that was matched by our desire for adventure or for thrills. Initially at least.
When I started out I did want to have an interesting life. I did want to be in places where things were happening. I had traveled, after university, through east and Central Africa down to South Africa. And this is in 1994 — as the Rwandan genocide was beginning to happen — and then I was in South Africa when Mandela was elected. These were very intense experiences for me as a young individual, and I wanted to keep experiencing those kinds of things, and journalism seemed like the best way to do that.
On photographing the explosion that left TJ with a traumatic brain injury
O'Reilly: My job in these situations is first of all not to get in the way of what's happening, while also trying to remain safe myself. So I was very focused on my role while these guys were focused on theirs. So I would just photograph things unfolding.
On what it is like to live with a traumatic brain injury
TJ Brennan: I was trying to take off my boots to take my first shower in a few months, when I first arrived at Camp Bastion [now Shorabak]. And there's something really scary about being inside your own head and telling your hands to untie your laces — and they won't listen.
You know what you're supposed to be doing. You're telling yourself what you're supposed to be doing. And your fingers are working, but something's not connecting. And the emotion and the fear that I felt in that moment and knowing that I had a difficult time recalling my own daughter's name just an hour ago at the hospital — like, that was really scary. There are times now where I have [what] I call ... "bad brain days," and that first day in the hospital was one of my first bad brain days that I had.
On returning to his squad and suffering from residual symptoms of his TBI
Brennan: The majority of traumatic brain injuries, they leave residuals. But not everyone experiences residual symptoms of their traumatic brain injury, so I thought that I was going to be OK when I went back out to my guys. And then, when it came time to me doing [what] I call ... the basics of being a Marine infantryman — having my squad's identification numbers memorized, having their blood types memorized ... when I went back and I started doing my precombat checks and precombat inspections, I was having a hard time remembering those.
That's a real, "Oh, crap" moment, when you're responsible for 15 lives. But I didn't want to be labeled as a malingerer for saying I was having issues. Because, for me — my TBI — the symptoms manifest in a very physical way for me. But they're very invisible to a lot of people, so it's easy for people to discount invisible injuries.
On not seeking help for his trauma initially
Brennan: I ignored getting help for far too long. One of the main reasons why I wanted to write the book was because I understand how it feels to feel alone, like you're the only veteran or service member going through an issue. It feels like you're surrounded by extremely strong people who are wearing the same uniform that you are, and you don't want to let them down. And that's a lot of why I couldn't bring myself to get help.
On deciding to be open about his own PTSD after a leader in the battalion gathered the unit to criticize a fellow Marine for having PTSD
Brennan: There was somebody in the battalion who was bitching [about] ... pulling the PTSD "punk card." And that was a symbolic moment to me, because it was [about] the stigma toward mental health treatment in action — whether it was 100 percent directed at me or not.
I immediately [felt like I] had been labeled a piece of broken gear. ... That's probably the best thing that could have happened to me in hindsight, because I knew it was either I walk back inside and say, "I'm not getting help, and I'm going to deploy back to Afghanistan with these guys in seven months" or "I need to steel my resolve and go down the road of getting help, because I just need to accept that my career is over."
I want to make one thing clear: The opinion that that "leader" showed that day, that's not representative of every Marine. That's not representative of every service member.
On helping another retired Marine through his writing
Brennan: What means the most to me was, after I wrote about my suicide attempt for The New York Times — I think it was 2013 — I had a Marine veteran reach out to me.
He called me on my office line while I was working at The Daily News in North Carolina. He really didn't tell me too much other than the fact that he was an Iraqi immigrant that later joined up and served as a linguist during the wars. When he came home, his family disowned him. And it had probably been about seven or 10 days after the story had published, but he told me that he Googled "painless, quick suicide" or some sort of Google search about how to kill himself painlessly and not leave a big mess for his family. And the SEO — the search engine optimization — for The New York Times story made that the first thing that popped up [in his online search]. And he called me to tell me that my story renewed his commitment to stay alive.
Lauren Krenzel and Mooj Zadie produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Deborah Franklin adapted it for the Web.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Journalists and military combatants often have an uneasy relationship. Our guests today, retired Marine Sergeant Thomas Brennan and veteran war correspondent Finbarr O'Reilly, met in 2010 when O'Reilly embedded with Brennan's unit in Afghanistan. They've traveled a long journey together and apart, which is told in their new book, a painfully honest joint memoir about the psychological cost of war.
O'Reilly was there when Sergeant Brennan was wounded by the blast of a grenade launched by an Afghan National Policeman. Brennan returned to the states with a serious brain injury and PTSD, which would lead to debilitating depression and a suicide attempt. O'Reilly kept in touch as he was struggling with the effects of years spent documenting human brutality in conflict zones across the world, seeing the suffering of countless people he couldn't help. O'Reilly helped Brennan build a new and successful career as a journalist. Brennan's now a regular contributor to The New York Times' At War blog.
And he founded The War Horse, a nonprofit online newsroom covering the effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Brennan and O'Reilly's joint memoir is called "Shooting Ghosts." Sergeant Brennan, T.J. Brennan, and Finbarr O'Reilly, welcome to FRESH AIR. Good to have you both. T.J., let's begin with the day that changed your life, November 1, 2010. You're leading a group of 15 Marines in Afghanistan in an operation in a village. You come under heavy fire from the Taliban.
Two of your men have already been wounded. What happens to you?
THOMAS J BRENNAN: What happened to me on November 1, 2010, was we had about 15 of my Marines out on patrol in a small village called Nabuaga (ph), Afghanistan. And we came under heavy RPG machine gun, AK-47 fire in a U-shaped ambush. That means we were surrounded on three sides. And two of my Marines got wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade that hit right beside their head on a wall - almost knocked them unconscious.
And then because of where we were at, we were in an open field about, you know, half the size of a football field. And we had no other option but to sprint to the next alleyway and hold the position. And that's when one of the Afghan National Police that had an RPG shot it hoping to hit the enemy and actually hit right beside myself and another Marine...
BRENNAN: ...And knocked both of us unconscious.
DAVIES: You weren't sure what had happened initially, I guess.
BRENNAN: No. I was actually looking at the ground because I thought I'd found an improvised explosive device on the ground right next to where I was standing. And I just shouted back to my Marines saying what I thought I'd found. So the next thing that they heard was a gigantic explosion. And they thought that I'd actually detonated an IED instead of having been injured by the RPG.
DAVIES: You're seriously impaired here, and it takes you a while to realize just how badly you're hurt. But I want to just go forward a moment to the point where you're being picked up by a helicopter for medical treatment. And this is a section of the book, and I want people to get a sense of your writing here, so why don't you just pick up this section where you and another Marine, this guy Chun (ph), are injured and are about to be picked up for some help.
BRENNAN: (Reading) As two Black Hawk helicopters circle overhead, I swing on my body armor. The weight almost knocks me to the ground. Without thinking, I put on my helmet, forgetting I'd thrown up in it. Vomit oozes down my face. I toss the helmet on the ground and wipe the puke away. The helmet rolls downhill and fills with dirt. I pick it up and put it back on. The weight bears down on my skull and makes my eyes feel like they're about to burst.
I shout at Chun to hurry up, then wince from the sharp pain caused by my own yell. At the foot of the hill below OP Kunjak, the rotor wash pelts me with dust and sand. The pulse of the rotors makes me stumble as I stagger through the red signal smoke marking the landing zone. Air Force medics pull me and Chun aboard.
DAVIES: And that's retired Sergeant T.J. Brennan talking about the day he was injured in Afghanistan. That's from his new book with Finbarr O'Reilly, "Shooting Ghosts." They are both our guests here on FRESH AIR. You write so evocatively about these experiences in the war. And I'm wondering how you were able to capture such detail. Did you keep notes at the time?
BRENNAN: One of my favorite parts about writing the book was having to go through the hundreds of letters that my wife and I both kept after we wrote back and forth to each other throughout my deployment. So I've probably got 200 letters written by me and her throughout my Afghanistan deployment. We've also got some letters that we wrote to each other during my deployment with the Navy in 2006.
So I had already written a lot of this down through, you know, writing back and forth with her. And then, you know, having Finbarr's photos that he took that day, it - I had to treat this like a reporting project because when I got blown up, it erased a lot of my memories. So if it wasn't for those letters, I would not have been able to write the book.
DAVIES: Yeah. And those letters probably tell us something about why you became a journalist, I imagine. Finbarr O'Reilly, you were with this unit on this patrol when they were pinned down by Taliban fire. What did you see?
FINBARR O'REILLY: I'd been going out on patrols with T.J.'s squad for a number of days by this point. And there were - a lot of these patrols were pretty routine. You're moving through villages and through dusty alleyways and past mud compounds in a very desert kind of area. And they're kind of ghost towns. There's nobody there. All the civilians have left because of the fighting. And this particular town was notoriously hostile. The only people who were left there were the kind of people who would shoot at you.
So on this particular day, there was an intention to engage their enemy, not quite as soon as happened. There was a planned operation. And basically the Taliban became aware of their presence. And my job in these situations is, first of all, not to get in the way of what's happening while also trying to remain safe myself. And as the firefight erupted, I focused and concentrated on taking pictures and remaining as covered as I could from any incoming or outgoing fire.
And so I would just move with the rhythm of the firefight. And I'd been doing this for a few years on various embeds in Afghanistan already. So I kind of had a sense of how these things unfolded and where not to be as much as possible and where to be in order to get the pictures because if I'm not getting the pictures, what's the point of me being in a situation like that? So I was very focused on my role while these guys were focused on theirs.
So I would just photograph things unfolding. And one of the things that I did photograph was this Afghan National Policeman who fired the rocket that ultimately went astray and blew up very close to T.J., knocking him unconscious. So I have the whole sequence documented of him running up the alleyway, then of the Afghan National Police officer shooting the rocket and the explosion afterwards and the guys who went to recover T.J. and haul him back into the safety of a compound that they'd created as a sort of safe area for them to stage from.
So that whole sequence is captured on film.
DAVIES: I want to have you read a bit of your description of that day. And this is - really what you're writing about here is what an explosion like this can do to a person. So if you would, this is Finbarr O'Reilly from his book with T.J. Brennan, "Shooting Ghosts."
O'REILLY: (Reading) Everyone inside the compound initially feared that T.J. had triggered an improvised explosive device. We were relieved it was only the rocket-propelled grenade, but the blast from such a warhead still forms a ring of death. Anyone inside a 12-foot radius will likely be torn to bits. Those outside the circle are still vulnerable to flying shrapnel and the invisible force of the blast wave. The power of the explosion decreases almost immediately as it moves away from the epicenter.
But at close range, the blast wave can crush bone and amputate limbs. Farther away, it inflicts less-visible damage. Its movement through human tissue is enough to force gas pockets inside the body to contract and to send blood and fluid sloshing into spaces that are normally empty. Organs can be knocked out of place. Most susceptible to such a pummeling are the inner ear, the lungs and the brain, that three-pound mass of fat and protein that makes us who we are and that responds most poorly to hard hits.
T.J. was just far enough away from the explosion to avoid the lethal blast radius and the shrapnel somehow missed him. But the shockwave from the RPG still ripped through the delicate wiring of his brain like a baseball bat smashing a computer circuit board.
DAVIES: And that's Finbarr O'Reilly reading from his book with T.J. Brennan about their experience in combat called "Shooting Ghosts." This was a terrible injury, which we'll talk more about. But maybe you could just, T.J. Brennan, talk to us a little bit about life at this outpost, Outpost Kunjak in Afghanistan, where you and your unit were staying. Just describe it for us.
BRENNAN: So Outpost Kunjak is the fighting position that I think every Marine squad leader could possibly dream of. And I say that because it's in the middle of nowhere. And you are very far away from your entire chain of command. So we got left alone for the most part. And it was just my guys and myself and the Afghan national police that were out there. And it was a good 20 to 25-minute ride to the closest base in a vehicle. And we were surrounded by hills that, you know, shielded us from the - you know, their surveillance that they had over there.
DAVIES: You're on top of this hill, right? And...
BRENNAN: Yeah. We were on top of a hill. It was extremely desolate and sandy. And we didn't get our cold-weather gear for the winter until December. So, I mean, it was freezing. It was windy. It was cold. But then again, when it was hot, it was hot. And we slept outside without a tent for the first, I think, almost four months of the deployment. And while it all sounds horrible, I mean, it was great at the same time. You just live life rough. And it was simple. And you didn't - I mean, you had everything in the world to think about, but you also had really nothing to worry about.
O'REILLY: And, Dave, if I can just say, you know, one of the reasons that I was drawn to Kunjak as a photographer was for this kind of rugged cinematic desert landscape that really made it feel like you were in some John Ford Western with these big expanses of territory, big sky and a real feeling of remoteness and dislocation from the outside world.
I mean, your entire existence felt like it was just your field of view, which was a muddy kind of camp that was about the size of two basketball courts. It was a jumble of tents and shoes and boots and camp gear and lookout posts that would surveil the land below and look off into the mountains in the distance. And the whole visual landscape was just beige. Everything was beige. There was no color whatsoever except for the blue of the sky.
DAVIES: Finbarr O'Reilly is a veteran photojournalist who's covered conflicts around the world. He is our guest, along with Thomas J. Brennan, who goes by T.J. He's a retired Marine sergeant who saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he was injured. Their book is called "Shooting Ghosts." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Thomas J. Brennan. He goes by T.J. He's a retired Marine sergeant who saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also with us, Finbarr O'Reilly, a veteran journalist who's covered conflicts around the world. They've collaborated in a memoir about the psychological impact of war. It's called "Shooting Ghosts." T.J. Brennan, you were a sergeant there. This was the first time you had commanded a unit. And you lived in very intimate conditions with your fellow Marines. What was your relationship with them like?
BRENNAN: When we were on patrol, I mean, I was the squad leader. I was the Marine in charge of the squad and responsible for bringing my guys home. When I personally say that I miss being in Afghanistan or I miss my guys or I mess being deployed, what I miss is the firepit that we had. We were so far away from our leaders that we were able to have a fire, a little bonfire every single night. And they couldn't see it because otherwise that was not authorized at all. And around that fire, you know, it was myself, my squad. And we would have, you know, and Finbarr was there. He would eat dinner with us. And then we would have our interpreter, H.B. (ph). I was T.J. Roche was Jim.
You know, we would just sit there and reminisce about back home. And everything was OK at that point. It didn't matter how IEDs we found that day. It didn't matter how long the patrol was or what kind of crazy stuff the Marine Corps was assigning to us for the next week, you know, what mountaintop we were going to look at for an explosive, that way goats wouldn't get blown up. It was nice. For being in the middle of a war zone, being with my guys was really, really nice.
DAVIES: A bond that's hard to replicate, I guess.
BRENNAN: It is. And it's really - there's a lot of things about military service that are very difficult to convey. And the bond that you share with those that you're under fire with is definitely one of those things that's hard to show and hard to explain.
DAVIES: You held a real responsibility. You wanted to get these guys back safely.
BRENNAN: It is a real responsibility, and it's something that I took to heart. I'm a true minority in the sense that I can say that I got my entire squad home alive there. There were not a lot. You know, and I don't even look at that as a bragging right. It's just - it's something that means a lot to me is that all of my squad walked off the plane together.
DAVIES: One of the interesting parts of the book is when you described how when you first got this unit, how you trained them and really worked them in, you know. Then you go up to this outpost, and there's this skinny guy, a journalist who's now sitting next to you, Finbarr. What did you think when you first saw him?
BRENNAN: So at that point, I'd only been working with my Marines for a little over a month. And then Finbarr shows up, and it just adds to the stress because the military is a very attention-to-detail-oriented organization. And sometimes, journalists don't realize the nuances to what we do. And the simplest thing taken out of context in a print story or in a photograph can really be a career-ending thing for somebody in the military.
DAVIES: Finbarr, do you remember that first meeting?
O'REILLY: Oh, yeah, I remember it. I had already been at the base for a couple of days when T.J. and his squad rolled in from a three-day operation that they'd been on. And they were scruffy and tired and weighed down with gear. You know, I thought, oh, here comes a crew of guys. Maybe these are the ones that I can kind of get in with and see if I can get some good pictures over the next little while. And T.J. kind of said, who are you? What are you doing here? I had to explain I was a journalist and a photographer. And he just said, oh, OK.
And then he immediately positioned himself between me and his men in this tiny little sleeping area that we had in one corner of the base that was open to the skies. And I knew that I would have to try and win their trust over, which is something you always have to do as an embedded journalist. You have to prove you're not a liability and that you're not going to make life more complicated for them by, first of all, you know, taking pictures that might get them in trouble but also more seriously about, you know, just doing something stupid on patrol like wandering off the line or freaking out when things happen because they've got enough to think about already.
So I found out, you know, much later. Even though T.J. seemed kind of OK, you know, I knew he wasn't thrilled to have me there. But it was only much later that I found out that he had other ideas, right, T.J.? What were you thinking? (Laughter) What were you really thinking that time when we first met?
BRENNAN: Kunjak was on quite a hill. And I was willing to throw Fin off that hill (laughter) over the cliff, if I needed to.
DAVIES: Finbarr O'Reilly, you know, this book is a lot about what exposure to combat does to people. And you were not a soldier. You were a photographer. But you had a lot of years in - reporting in conflict zones - 15 years - much of it in Africa. You write that you lost count of the number of times you've been tear gassed, stoned, shot at, spit on and detained. You write about one particularly harrowing experience in the Congo in 2006. You want to just share that with us?
O'REILLY: I was based in Congo my first job as a foreign reporter. I wasn't a photographer at that time. I was - I started as a journalist and as a writer. So I was working as a photographer by then. I'd spent a year working in Congo and went back over subsequent years to cover the unrest there and, you know, this massive sprawling conflict that was consuming the whole of central Africa, really. And it was around election time - presidential elections - and there was a lot of tension between the incumbent president and his main rival, who was a former warlord. And I ended up with a number of other journalists inside a stadium where the opposition member was having a rally. And there was a lot of hostility to foreigners because there was the feeling that outsiders were trying to influence the elections in favor of the incumbent.
And as there weren't many foreigners physically in the country and, certainly, not at these kind of political rallies, a lot of the anger and frustration and resentment of a youthful support base feels very much like venting on whoever's around. And we were - you know, myself and the other photographers and journalists - in this stadium of 30,000 people - angry people about, you know, these clashes that have been going on. And various, you know, groups of youths started grabbing us, beating us and trying to rough us up quite seriously. And there'd been - it was a day of extreme chaos and rioting outside. Police were being killed and dismembered and burnt alive and pulled through the streets. So it was a moment where you do think that if we don't get out of here now, this is the kind of situation - mob scene - anger, frustration and lack of accountability in the lawless place like Kinshasa that things could go very terribly wrong as we've seen it do for other journalists in other parts of the continent in the past.
So it was a question of trying to find the warlord's security guards when his car sort of eventually rolled into the stadium and just saying, you guys have got to get us out of here now or we're going to be torn to pieces. And we managed to convince them to pull us through the crowd and get us out of the stadium and toward our cars. But it was one of those situations where you're having hands grabbing at you, pulling at you. And usually that would happen just to, you know, grab stuff out of your pockets. But this was - things where - rocks were being thrown at us - sticks, stones - people really wanting to terrorist limb from limb.
And it was one of those situations where, even though you've covered a lot of conflict, civil unrest, at the end of that day, after managing to get to the cars and managing to get away from this angry mob, a lot of the photographers I was with that day - we were about half a dozen - were really shaken and wondering if this is something that they wanted to continue doing in that kind of hostile environment. That was one of the more extreme situations. But what you often encounter this kind of hostility when working in some of the places that I've worked across West Africa.
DAVIES: Finbarr O'Reilly is a veteran photojournalist who's covered conflicts around the world. T.J. Brennan is a retired Marine sergeant and journalist. Their joint memoir is called "Shooting Ghosts." After a break, we'll hear more about Brennan's experiences, including an incident in the battle for Fallujah that's haunted him ever since. Also David Edelstein reviews the new movie "Beach Rats." I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross who's off this week. We're speaking with Finbarr O'Reilly, a veteran war correspondent, and retired Marine Sergeant, Thomas T.J. Brennan. They've written a joint memoir about the psychological impact of war called "Shooting Ghosts." They met in Afghanistan when O'Reilly was embedded with Brennan's unit and Brennan was knocked unconscious by the blast from a rocket propelled grenade.
T.J., when you were injured by the blast of this rocket propelled grenade, you were taken back to a field hospital in Afghanistan, which was a pretty sophisticated unit. But they had to evaluate you and, you know, see how badly you were harmed. How badly were you hurt? What were your symptoms? Do you remember?
BRENNAN: One of the moments that really sticks out in my mind as to how difficult it was for me just to even think at that period of time was the scene that I wrote about where I was trying to take off my boots to take my first shower in a few months, when I first arrived at Camp Bastion.
And, like, there's something really scary about being inside your own head and telling your hands to untie your laces, and they won't listen. Like, you know what you're supposed to be doing. You're telling yourself what you're supposed to be doing. And your fingers are working, but things just aren't - something's not connecting.
And the emotion and the fear that I felt in that moment, and knowing that I had a difficult time recalling my own daughter's name, like, that was really scary. Like, there's times now where I have that - I call them my bad brain days. And that first time in the hospital was one of my first bad brain days that I had.
DAVIES: When you describe what condition you were in in that field hospital, it's very clear, you know, you'd had a traumatic brain injury. And you were seriously impaired - your - you know, your memory, your judgment, your cognition. But you were a Marine commander, and you missed that bond of those guys up on that hill. And you wanted to be back there for them. Did you lie about your condition so that they would send you back?
BRENNAN: I definitely lied about what was going on inside my head. There was - so we took something called a ANAM. I think the acronym's A-N-A-M. And it's some - it's, like, a cognitive test that we did beforehand. And the results of my pre-deployment evaluation had not been sent with our unit to Afghanistan. So when I got wounded, I had no base line to be compared against. So really, it came down to, like, whatever my initial score was when I first showed up at the field hospital.
I had to improve a certain percentage in order to be able to go back out to my guys. And when I had to do - they make you run, like, a half a mile. And that was an incredibly difficult half mile. It just felt like my head was spinning and that I was just incredibly nauseous. And I lied about having those problems just because I felt so strongly that I needed to be back there for my guys because I was just - in a very selfish way, I was afraid that one of them would get hurt or killed without me there. And selfishly, I was afraid of feeling, you know, guilty later about not being there for them if something like that were going to happen.
DAVIES: It worked. They sent you back. Did you feel you were able to be an effective commander? Did you have the mental tools you needed?
BRENNAN: I believe I did. It wasn't until I got back that I really started to see the - a lot of the cognitive issues that I was having because a lot of my doctors were telling me, you know, it'll get better. Don't worry, like, you'll get back to normal. If you don't, just let us know. So I thought that I was going to be OK when I went back out to my guys.
And then when it came time to me doing the - I call them the basics of being a Marine infantryman - I mean, having my squad's, you know, identification numbers memorized, having their blood types memorized. But when I went back and I started doing my pre-combat checks and pre-combat inspections, I was having a hard time remembering those. And that's a real oh-crap moment when you're responsible for 15 lives.
But I didn't want to be labeled as a malingerer for saying I was having issues because, you know, for me, my traumatic - my TBI is a very - like, the symptoms manifest in a very physical way for me, but they're very invisible to a lot of people. So it's easy for people to discount invisible injuries. And that's probably one of the worst things to experience as somebody with a brain injury because it's - they're very, very, very real to you, just like the depression and the mental health, that - they're invisible to others, but they cripple your life.
DAVIES: Thomas J. Brennan - he goes by T.J. - is a retired Marine sergeant who saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he was injured. Finbarr O'Reilly is a veteran journalist who's covered conflicts around the world. Their new book is called "Shooting Ghosts." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with Thomas J. Brennan. He goes by T.J. He's a retired Marine sergeant who saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he was injured. Also with us - Finbarr O'Reilly, a veteran journalist who's covered conflicts around the world. They've collaborated on a memoir about the psychological impact of war. It's called "Shooting Ghosts."
T.J. Brennan, you got through your time as commanding this post in Afghanistan, and you came back home. And I got to say, it is a compelling description of what it's like when Marines come back. And the Marine Corps warns you, it will be hard to adjust. You were still experiencing symptoms from the brain injury you had suffered and depression. It was, you know, clear that you were struggling with this. Were you reluctant to seek help from the Corps to get medical help?
BRENNAN: I ignored getting help for far too long. One of the main reasons why I wanted to write the book was because I understand how it feels to feel alone and like you're the only veteran or, you know, service member going through an issue. It feels like you're surrounded by extremely strong people who're wearing the same uniform that you are, and you don't want to let them down. And that's a lot of why I couldn't bring myself to get help.
DAVIES: Your wife, Mel, was - you know, wanted to help you get better. She was delighted to have you back home. What was your experience with her and the rest of your family like as you were trying to - coming back with all of these issues?
BRENNAN: I treated my wife absolutely horrible. And one of the most difficult parts for me about writing "Shooting Ghosts" was wanting to make sure that I did right by her, and I did right by my family and I did right by my Marines. My wife wanted me home, thankfully, even though I didn't really want to be home, like, once I finally got there.
And her putting the whiteboards on the fridge and the Post-its all over the house, and trying to get me into the habits of hanging up my keys here, and, you know, leaving my wallet here and making sure my bag was here and - so looking back on how terrible I treated her when all she wanted to do was help during that time, it brings me a lot of guilt and a lot of sadness. She could see the problems that I was having long before I was willing to admit that I was having them. And I will forever be grateful for everything she tried to do for me back then.
DAVIES: Well, it's painful to see what you were going through because you're back on a - you're on a military base. You're on a Marine base, and you're involved in training and stuff. So you have a role. They expect you to be a Marine. You're going through some tortuous post-traumatic stress and the effects of the injuries. There's a moment in the book where you described it. You finally are going to get help. You go to this medical unit. And everyone can see it, that you've gone there. And you talk to two leaders. And they tell you, yes, go ahead, that their doors will always be open to you. And then, one of the leaders gathers some other Marines in a little circle to tell them something. Will you share this with us?
BRENNAN: Call them school circles. And it's where people in the unit get around and some people kneel, some sit, some stand. And during that time, it was - I'm not even sure if I can say this on here, but, you know, there was somebody in the battalion who was bitching out and pulling the PTSD punk card. And that was a symbolic moment to me - it was the stigma toward mental health treatment in action. Like, you know, whether it was a hundred percent directed at me or not, like, I had immediately been labeled a piece of broken gear. And, like, that was something that was - that's probably the best thing that could have happened to me.
BRENNAN: Because I - yeah, in hindsight because I knew it was either I walk back inside and say I'm not getting help and I'm going to deploy back to Afghanistan with these guys in seven months or, you know, I need to steel my resolve and go down the road of getting help because, you know, I just need to accept that my career is over. And I want to make one thing clear. Like, the opinion that, you know, that, quote, unquote, "leader" showed that day, that's not representative of every Marine. That's not representative of every service member.
DAVIES: Right. And just to clarify in case the audience missed it, I mean, the quote in the book is he says that "a bitch-ass sergeant is trying to pull the PTSD punk card. Any of you try to pull that crap, you'll get your rear ends handed to you." So, you know, you went through therapy. And there's a lot of different kinds of therapy. And one of the things that the military does for post-traumatic stress is what's called prolonged exposure therapy. The idea is you're supposed to talk about these traumatic events and describe them again and again and again. And over time, they lose their power. There's a lot of debate. Some people think this isn't effective, but it put you in the position of having to talk not just about your injury in Afghanistan but things you did in Iraq in the fight for Falluja.
You were in one of the most horrific battles of the Iraq conflict. And you killed people. I mean, this happens. This is what you were trained to do. You were fighting a determined enemy. And there was one case where there was a building from which insurgents were firing on your unit. And I believe you fired a rocket-propelled grenade. When you went to examine the wreckage that the two insurgents were dead, unfortunately, there were two children there as well. And in your book, your co-author Finbarr O'Reilly makes an observation about what you have struggled with.
And I - you can only admire what you have gone through in working through so many of these issues. But he notes that besides the brain injury and the trauma of combat, there's what psychologists call a moral injury. That is to say that we're socially programmed not to kill. That's not right. That's not what our DNA tells us. And somehow, you must overcome that. And that there are few things more damaging to the human psyche than betraying our own moral codes, that there's, in effect, a moral injury that comes from doing what you're trained to do and killing people. I'm wondering what your reaction is to that idea.
BRENNAN: You can play all the what-if scenarios before you go into combat, but nothing - I don't think there's ever been a military operation that truly goes to plan. There's too much that's left up to happenstance. And nobody who wears a uniform can see through walls, and there's always unknowns. I did something that will - it'll haunt me for the rest of my life. And it's something that I'm going to grapple with. It's something that it's - it's extremely difficult to talk about right now.
And it's something that, you know, 9 out of the 10 Marines that were there with me didn't even know that that happened because I was one of the few that did, like, battle damage assessment on, you know, after I shot the small rocket. It - really bad stuff happens at war. And it's not always because somebody's being malicious or because somebody wants it to happen, it's just because really crappy stuff can happen when things are out of your control.
DAVIES: Right. I mean, there was certainly no intent on your part to do that.
BRENNAN: No. No. I mean, it's - I - the one thing that I wrote about in the book is that, you know, my wife and I both went, you know, she had two miscarriages. And for me, like, I feel as though, like, part of me feels as though I caused those because of what I did. So, I mean, it's come across like the Atlantic back - it's something that's home with me now, so.
DAVIES: The idea that the two children died as a result of your combat? And...
BRENNAN: Yeah, like I had - I almost feel as though, like, how - what's happened with my family is penance for - I don't know. I don't think I'll ever truly achieve, like, penance for what happened. I don't think I'll ever truly forgive myself.
DAVIES: You know, I guess what's - what was behind the question is that what you were doing that day is you were a professional soldier and you acted professionally, right? I mean, you did what your training told you to do.
O'REILLY: And, Dave, I know from the time that I've spent with T.J. since I met him in 2010, I didn't know about any of this stuff that had happened in Iraq for him until we started working on the book. My understanding was that his post-traumatic stress and that his brain injury were the root cause of his trouble, but I realized much later when he did feel enough trust and enough distance from those events to really kind of reckon with them and understand that he would have to discuss them and confront them and grapple with them, that these were the things that really were the problem.
DAVIES: You know, I feel like I need to say that, T.J. Brennan, while you certainly had a lot of difficulties, you're not unaccomplished. I mean, you started a writing collaboration, and with Finbarr O'Reilly's help with editing, initially got things published on blogs and then eventually had two jobs at local newspapers. You earned an undergraduate degree. You got admittance to the Columbia School of Journalism, which is very prestigious, and graduated from that. You formed a charity, Fog of War. And you started a online newsroom called The War Horse, which has done some great stuff. So it's not like you've been cowering in a room. Do you feel some pride in all that?
BRENNAN: Short answer, yes. A lot of it along my journey has been writing has helped me heal. It has helped me contextualize my own experiences in my own mind. Hopefully it has helped other veterans and civilians contextualize the wars of other veterans. And now here we are today, you know, with The War Horse. We're the only nonprofit newsroom focused on the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. So I can't say that I haven't accomplished a lot - I have.
But what means the most to me was after I wrote about my suicide attempt for The New York Times - I think it was 2013 - I had a Marine veteran reach out to me - actually, he called me on my office line while I was working at The Daily News in North Carolina. He really didn't tell me too much other than the fact that he was an Iraqi immigrant that later joined up and served as a linguist during the wars. And when he came home, his family disowned him.
And it had probably been about seven or 10 days after the story had published, but he told me that he Googled painless quick suicide or some, you know, some sort of a Google search about how to kill himself painlessly and not leave a big mess for his family. And the SEO - the search engine optimization for The New York Times story made that the first thing that popped up. And he called me to tell me that my story renewed his commitment to stay alive.
And, you know, out of all the - The War Horse has been incredible. I can't say that the journalism awards haven't been great. But that one Marine calling me and saying that that, like, something that I wrote, like, helped steel his resolve to not kill himself, that, to me, is one of my greatest accomplishments, like, since coming home. And that, like, that kind of an impact on a truly micro level is my driving force and why I put so much of my heart and soul into not only, you know, writing "Shooting Ghosts" but in trying to give voice to the veterans and civilians that write for us at The War Horse.
DAVIES: T.J. Brennan, thanks so much for your service. And thank you for sharing your story with us.
BRENNAN: Thank you.
DAVIES: And Finbarr O'Reilly, thank you so much for speaking with us.
O'REILLY: Thank you. My pleasure.
DAVIES: T.J. Brennan is a retired Marine sergeant and journalist. Finbarr O'Reilly is a veteran war correspondent. Their joint memoir is called "Shooting Ghosts." Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "Beach Rats." This is FRESH AIR.
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