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Marine and photojournalist reframe the war-wounded soul in a new memoir

Photographer Finbarr O'Reilly and former U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Thomas Brennan both went through the intensity of combat, and the loneliness and doubt that follows. Now they’ve written a dual memoir, "Shooting Ghosts," a story of two lives that came together in war. The co-authors join special correspondent Nick Schifrin for a conversation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now from the NewsHour Bookshelf, the story of two lives that came together in war, an embedded photographer in Afghanistan and a combat Marine wounded in an ambush explosion.

    Special correspondent Nick Schifrin sits down with the authors, Thomas Brennan and Finbarr O'Reilly.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This is a book about what its two authors call an odd alliance.

    Thomas Brennan was a Marine sergeant who served in Iraq and then Afghanistan. Finbarr O'Reilly is a photojournalist who spent more than a decade in Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan.

    And that is where the two met, in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011. And together they have written a searing dual memoir called "Shooting Ghosts." Dual, because, together, they went through the intensity of combat and then the loneliness, doubt and vulnerability that follows combat.

    Welcome to you both. Thanks for being here.

    Finbarr, I want to start with you. And I want to start with the very first scene in the book. And you are a photojournalist, and you have started this memoir, not about a photo you took, but the impact of a photo that you took on Thomas' mother.

    Why start this memoir that way?

  • Finbarr O’Reilly:

    It is a book about war, but it's also a book about the home front and what happens there.

    And so, really, by looking at the impacts, not only on us, but on the family members who are affected, that was one way to dive into the narrative and kind of bridge this distance between what happens at war and what happens at home.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The photo that you took that day and the photos that you took that day were so shocking to Thomas' mother because they showed a very horrific scene, an injury, in fact.

    Thomas, can you describe what is happening here? That is you on the left.

  • Thomas Brennan:

    That is me on the left.

    I don't remember too much from the day, unless I'm looking at Finbarr's photos. But that was shortly after I had been blown up by a rocket-propelled grenade that was shot by an Afghan national police officer during a foot patrol in a small village in Helmand Province.

    And that was the moment in my life that resulted in my medical retirement from the Marine Corps and the loss of my career. Those photos right there represent really the — one of the worst days of my life. And it's something that continues to impact my family and myself each and every day.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And do you grapple with taking that photo?

  • Finbarr O’Reilly:

    No, I don't. That's what I was there to do. I was there to photograph.

    And even before this incident happened, we had had the conversation, because my bunk out in this little combat outpost in Afghanistan was right beside him. And we had been talking over nights and days. He had specifically said to me, if something happens to me, I want my story known. I want people back home to know the sacrifices I have made.

    So, in a way, I was doing my job, but I was also honoring his request.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thomas, you write about a war-wounded body, which we can see in that stare right now, but also a war-wounded soul.

    How wounded were you after this war?

  • Thomas Brennan:

    I think that one of the things that was most difficult to grapple with coming home is that I look fine, and people love to tell me that I look fine.

    You can't really see my injuries. But the reality about invisible wounds, such as brain injury, is that while they're invisible to most, they're very visible to myself. They are very visible to my family and friends. And they manifest in really strange ways.

    As far as the war-wounded soul, I think that that comes from trying to reframe, understand and accept what you have done and what happens to you and your fellow Marines and service members during war.

  • Finbarr O’Reilly:

    We end up feeling cowardly. We end up feeling scared. We end up doing things that we may not be terribly proud of, and not want to tell people about, in our own behavior in these places.

    Or in T.J.'s cases, in combat, he had to do things that he has to live with. The injury in Afghanistan was one of part of it. But his experiences in Iraq are another thing that he has to live with. And he's spoken very openly about the sort of moral wounds of having to kill in combat and grappling with that.

    You never really get over a trauma. But you get through it. And that's really what the book is taking a look at, how to do that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And the key part of this book is about redemption for both of you.

    And, Finbarr, first you. You write about how, for survivors, war never ends. Is this book a way to get a little peace? And I have got another photo of you cycling in Ireland. Have you found a little peace?

  • Finbarr O’Reilly:

    Yes, definitely.

    I mean, I think we have both stepped back from the front lines now. The last time I was covering a war was in Gaza with you in 2014. And for me, it became very clear that I no longer wanted to be a part of that theater.

    It was a point for me where I knew I had to get away from it, or go down a very kind of negative spiral. We all deal with traumatic events in our life. And the book really looks at, how do we manage that? How we move through it?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You're journalist now, Thomas. You created the nonprofit newsroom The War Horse, which covers Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Do you think you have moved through, as Finbarr said, your trauma?

  • Thomas Brennan:

    I still have my bad days. And I know that I'm going to have many, many more bad days to come.

    But I'm starting to find peace with my war. And the book definitely helped me do that. And my relationship with Finn and learning how to write has definitely helped me come home.

    And, really, like, the book's a success in my eyes if one veteran who finds themselves as lonely as I was when I tried kill myself actually doesn't go through with the act and decides to not end their life.

    So, like, that's where the success in the book will come for me, is knowing that I have made that impact on a truly micro level, and that another veteran knows that they're not alone.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Finbarr O'Reilly, Thomas Brennan, thank you very much.

    The book is "Shooting Ghosts."

  • Thomas Brennan:

    Thanks.

  • Finbarr O’Reilly:

    Thank you very much.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that book is a gift.

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