Writing Through War’s Invisible Wounds: Meet Thomas J. Brennan

Sep 25, 2017

Thomas J. Brennan first started writing about war through letters home to his wife when he was deployed in a remote village in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.

He was a Marine squad leader in charge of a team of 15 men. In November, 2010 they came under heavy fire from the Taliban, and Brennan was knocked unconscious by a rocket-propelled grenade. That day changed the course of his life. He suffered a debilitating traumatic brain injury and medically retired in 2012 with a Purple Heart. 

"Veterans carry something from military service that can be inherently traumatic. To understand the real impact of war [...] takes time."

As he transitioned out of active service, Brennan turned back to writing to process what he now calls his 'invisible injuries.' His first-ever piece was published in The New York Times blog "At War," and Brennan went on to earn a master’s degree in journalism.

Last year he founded The War Horse, an online newsroom focused on the Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs. That organization broke the story of Marines United, a Facebook group through which hundreds of Marines solicited and shared naked photographs of female service members and veterans. Brennan also co-authored the new book Shooting Ghosts: A U.S. Marine, a Combat Photographer, and Their Journey Back from War (Viking/2017) that tells the story of his friendship with photographer Finbarr O'Reilly.

"The reaction that came from my reporting proved the hypothesis of my reporting. I was reporting there was pandemic sexual exploitation going on in the military, and I was met with threats of death and rape."

Host Frank Stasio talks with Brennan about his quest to lay bare the invisible wounds of war and shine a spotlight on the lesser-known stories of the military. Brennan and O'Reilly will be joining the Daily Tar Heel Book Club for a discussion tonight at 7 p.m. at the UNC-Chapel Hill Student Store.

Interview Highlights:

TJ on serving in the Second Battle of Fallujah in 2004:
One of the most vivid memories that I have from before the assault was sitting in a room on Camp Fallujah with my entire platoon … We’d be in Iraq for quite a while, but there was never the look in [my Lieutenant] eyes like ‘somebody’s going to die during this’ … The fear was palpable in the room, and that’s what made it so different. … One of the sayings we had over there was that ‘complacency kills,’ so you were always trying to fight the complacency and make sure that we had a realistic expectation of what we were getting into every time we left the base. But there was something about the way that we prepared for that operation ... We knew from the get-go that it was going to be different.

One thing that you can’t do in combat is you can’t see through walls … You’re surrounded by unknowns, and regrettable things happen … I shot a rocket, and part of my job was doing battle damage assessment afterward … And there were two kids that had been inside the building. We’re talking about downtown Fallujah … You just don’t think about seeing little kids in a situation like that … I walked away from that event. I didn’t talk about it with anybody for a very long time … It was a defining moment of my life, and it’s painful to talk about now. It was painful to talk about then. I surely don’t think that every veteran shares my experience in this … Veterans carry something from military service that can be inherently traumatic, and it’s difficult for them to talk about. To understand the real impact of war, I think it takes time and building a relationship and building rapport to really hear these deep stories that come from the front lines.

TJ on his traumatic brain injury and reluctance to admit what was happening:
I think we’re still in the early phases of understanding what blast injury does to the brain … I was more concerned with getting back out to my guys … When I got back to my men and realized I was having those issues, I made my focus developing compensatory strategies rather than saying I was having an issue. I always clung to that ‘the headaches are going to get better,’ ‘the migraines are going to lessen’ … We had tons of Starbucks VIA instant coffee that got shipped to us by the case. When I would get my migraines I would use that [and] chewing tobacco. I would pack about 10 of them into a water bottle trying to get the caffeine to knock the migraine out … I would start staying behind and finding other things I could do instead of going out there with my guys … I wanted to be better. I wanted to stay in.

TJ on being a veteran writing for The New York Times:
One thing I’m always afraid of with things that I’ve written is I don’t want people to think that it’s ‘poor me,’ or ‘woe is me,’ because veterans don’t want pity. We want to have a conversation … The majority of war and the majority of a deployment aren’t negative and traumatic things. The majority of war are happy moments where you’re spending time with the men and women to your side, and you’re joking around with your team and your squad … There was a responsibility that I felt came with being given the privilege of writing for The New York Times about things like this, because the New York Times is a voice of authority … First I want to do right by my family. I want to do right by the Marines that I served with. And I want to do right by the veteran population as a whole. So while it was really, really cool to see my byline for the first time especially in The New York Times. It was scary being a voice for other people because journalism isn’t necessarily something that a lot of veterans pursue. And we don’t necessarily have the best opinions of journalism and journalists.