Friendship can bloom in the most barren of places, and for Finbarr O’Reilly and a US Marine squad leader named Sergeant Tom “TJ” Brennan, it bloomed three years ago in an isolated combat outpost in a godforsaken place called Kunjak, in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.
O’Reilly is one of the most accomplished photojournalists of his generation, and he found himself embedded with 30 Marines on a hill overlooking a sandy desert. Brennan led the Third Platoon, Fourth Squad, of the First Battalion of the Eighth Marines.
“My bunk was right next to his,” O’Reilly said. “They were just cots. There’s no roof. It’s open to the wind and the rain. You go to bed early. You can’t have lights on because it could draw enemy fire. So you’re basically in your rack by 7 or 8 at night.”
And so they talked, the photographer and the Marine. “He asked me a lot of questions about my work, what I do, how I could be there without a weapon. I said, ‘TJ, if it gets to a point that I need to pick up a weapon, we’re in big trouble.’ ”
They were lying there in the dark one night, and TJ Brennan asked Finbarr O’Reilly if he would interview Osama bin Laden if he had the chance. O’Reilly is Canadian, and he was worried about saying the wrong thing.
“My answer was sort of wishy-washy,” he recalled. “And TJ says: ‘Man, what kind of journalist are you? I’d do it in a heartbeat.’ ”
It was at that moment that Finbarr O’Reilly concluded that TJ Brennan was not your average Marine.
One day, they were on an operation and rocket-propelled grenades rained down. Three of Brennan’s Marines lay wounded. He was scrambling to help them when another explosion knocked him out. Brennan suffered traumatic brain injury and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. As he recovered, he remembered his conversations with the photographer and started writing.
TJ Brennan grew up in Randolph and joined the Marines when he was 17 years old. “I joined the Marines because my recruiter said I couldn’t do it,” he said. “When Finbarr came into the picture in 2010, I hadn’t written in seven or eight years. I just didn’t have time for it.”
At first, Brennan was almost embarrassed to show his writing to O’Reilly. He didn’t think it was very good. But when O’Reilly read it, he knew it was special. The prose was sparse. But it spoke with aching honesty. And it talked about the very things, the distractions, the anxiety, that one-third of the 1.7 million vets of Iraq and Afghanistan — those believed to have PTSD — struggle with every day.
With O’Reilly’s help, Brennan’s dispatches began appearing on the “At War” blog in the New York Times. His words are more than one Marine’s attempt to reconcile the scrambling of his brain and his slow, wobbly return to ordinary life. They are a lifeline for other vets struggling in quiet desolation.
“If I can reach one vet, it’s worth it,” he told me the other day at Harvard, where O’Reilly is a Nieman Fellow and where they talked about the book they want to write together.
TJ Brennan is too modest to say this, so I will: His words have already helped many vets. I know some of them. For now, he’s traded his M-4 rifle for a keyboard. He’s learning the business from the ground up, as military affairs reporter for The Daily News in Jacksonville, N.C. He is in the middle of an extraordinary transition, from warrior to journalist, from soldier to civilian. And, like a good Marine, he’s making the best of it.