Thomas “T. J.” Brennan and Finbarr O’Reilly were unlikely friends, with Brennan in the US Marine Corps and Reilly working as a photojournalist on an assignment that brought him to cover Brennan’s unit in Afghanistan. They wrote a book about their separate experiences with war, “Shooting Ghosts -- A U.S. Marine, A Combat Photographer, and Their Journey Back from War.”
The Daily Tar Heel presented the duo for their first book club meeting Monday evening in the upstairs lounge of Student Stores.
Brennan said when he and O’Reilly first met, relations were contentious, at least on his end, exacerbated by his having only been with his unit for about six weeks prior.
“I wanted to throw him over a cliff, I was willing to shoot him in the foot. I wanted him gone," Brennan said. "Things are already stressful enough when you’re getting shot at, you don’t need somebody taking pictures of you while you’re fighting.”
One of O’Reilly’s tricks to ingratiate himself with the Marines was bringing a box with cartons of cigarettes and chewing tobacco, as he knew they were at remote outposts. He said that worked well as a way to break the ice.
“I understand that these guys have a very serious job to do. They’re looking out for each other and trying to get through their deployment without adding any further liabilities to their roles on the foot patrols and being out in these very hostile areas,” O’Reilly said. “I need to prove to them that I’m not going to be a liability, that I’m not going to wander off the patrol and get them into some kind of trouble.”
Brennan founded The War Horse and broke the story about Marines United, a nude photo scandal that rocked the Marine Corps and spurred change in the armed forces. After publication, he received rape and death threats.
Brennan recalled speaking with a woman who had served prior to the story’s publication.
“‘When this story breaks, you’re going to know exactly what it feels like to be a woman in uniform,’” Brennan quoted.
After leaving the armed forces, Brennan suffered from PTSD, and O’Reilly suffered with trauma as well. At one point, Brennan attempted suicide. He later wrote a story for The New York Times about that experience.
Brennan received a phone call from a fellow Marine veteran who said he had been looking for a way to kill himself when he stumbled upon the Times story.
"It’s really hard to ignore having that kind of an impact on someone... Knowing that I’ve made that difference in someone’s life by sharing such a painful moment in my own — that left a lasting mark on me," he said. "That’s really why I personally wanted to write the book. While I do want it to be widely read, that one person, that micro-degree of impact, that’s a successful book for me.”
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