The conditions of war can make friends out of the least likely people.
Thomas J. Brennan, a retired Marine Corps sergeant and founder of the site The War Horse, suffered a traumatic brain injury after a rocket-propelled grenade narrowly missed him and then exploded during a patrol in Afghanistan. Photojournalist Finbarr O’Reilly was there, embedded with Brennan’s unit, and took photos of him in the aftermath of the blast. In that moment, their lives became intertwined.
O’Reilly had been a photojournalist for decades; he’d seen the horrors of war and lost many colleagues in conflict zones. Both Brennan and O’Reilly suffered from mental and physical injuries and sought out help.
They’ve written a memoir together called Shooting Ghosts: A U.S. Marine, a Combat Photographer, and Their Journey Back From War, about their experiences with combat, injury, and their friendship.
Their friendship seemed like an improbable outcome at first.
“Initially, I wanted to throw him over the cliff,” Brennan said about the first time they met. “Like, when I first saw him, when I found out that he was a photojournalist being embedded with us.”
Brennan’s squad had only been working together for a few months, and “we weren’t ready to have anybody embedded with us.”
“So the fact that we’ve become friends is really, I think, a testament to the bonds that are formed in combat and under fire,” he said.
O’Reilly admits that he was also skeptical of Brennan at first, but over many days and conversations together in Afghanistan, their friendship developed.
“In some way, I was able to share in that bonding experience of his deployment the way that his other Marines did as well,” he said.
Writing about their experiences in war and back home was therapeutic for both authors.
“One of the ways that we can really move through these experiences, and kind of grapple with them and make sense of them, is through writing,” O’Reilly said.
“Doing that, for me and for both of us, I think, was a very cathartic experience, and it allowed us to put those experiences in the past rather than living with them continuously,” he added.
“Writing the book for me was kind of like exposure therapy along the way,” Brennan said, “because I had hundreds of letters that I had exchanged between my wife and I over the course of my deployment. I had to talk with a bunch of my Marines, family members, and others that I had served with throughout my career in order to really make the book as detailed as possible.”
In the editing process, Brennan had to focus all of the information that he had gathered.
“Being able to refine my own thoughts and think about them hyper-critically, it actually made writing about very traumatic things quite cathartic,” he added.
Shooting Ghosts reads like a personal journal or a correspondence between Brennan and O’Reilly, which makes sense: part of their writing process was sending each other drafts of their chapters and then suggesting edits. But, O’Reilly said, it was not intended to be written in a journal style.
“So, if it feels close enough and personal enough to you as a reader to feel like it was a journal, that you were there, then it means on some level that we’ve managed to get a depth of detail and intimacy that will really let the reader into what we were think and feeling at those moments,” He said. “And in that sense, that’s always going to be an objective.”
Brennan said he and O’Reilly chose to write in the present tense, hoping that would allow readers to feel they were accompanying the authors on their journey.
“You always want to show, not tell,” he said. “And if we were writing about all of this as though it were in the past, we’re telling you what we were going through, and we wanted to show people what’s it’s like to be wounded, what it’s like to go to war, and come home both as a combatant and as someone documenting those wars as a journalist.”
Readers may expect that Shooting Ghosts is just focused on war, said O’Reilly, and “maybe a third of the book focuses on that. But it’s as much about friendship and the importance of family and the social support network to get people through difficult times.”
Talking with people you trust and reaching out for help, no matter how difficult it may seem, will make you better off, he continued.
“And that is the most important thing to know, that you are not actually alone no matter how alone you may feel,” O’Reilly said.
Brennan added that, for anyone who reads their book, not just veterans, “it’s okay to not be okay… there is no shame in going to get help. So please, go get help.”
Shooting Ghosts is available on Amazon.