More Writing, Less War: LJ Talks to Thomas J. Brennan and Finbarr O’Reilly

Marine veteran Thomas J. Brennan (below, l.) and war photojournalist Finbarr O’Reilly (r.) are coauthors of Shooting Ghosts: A U.S. Marine, a Combat Photographer, and Their Journey Back from War (see the starred review,
LJ 6/15/17, p. 92).

How did you decide to write a book together?
Writing about my life as a foreign correspondent and photographer had never appealed to me, but the idea of comparing and contrasting my war experiences with someone who actually fought in those wars seemed interesting and worthwhile. TJ and I discussed how to approach telling our combined stories, how the wars affected us, and how we found ways to cope in the aftermath of war. Originally, we planned on me writing chapters in the first person, with TJ writing in third person, for the book to read as though there was a single narrator. But our editor, Wendy Wolf, suggested we try dual first-person narratives, which created tension between our voices and made the story more textured and intimate.
TB: Just as Fin trusted me to go on our first patrol together in Afghanistan, I trusted him as we set out on our mission to write Shooting Ghosts.

Why do you think the Iraq and Afghan Wars receive little attention?
TB: People don’t discuss U.S.–led wars because [civilians] are willfully omitted from the conversation. I was unable to see that while I was on active duty because I was too busy fighting those wars. The conflict in Afghanistan was nearing its tenth anniversary when my deployment began in 2010, and it seems now that perpetual war is an accepted staple of American life in a post–9/11 world. War impacts us all; war and trauma must become part of the larger conversation.

What motivated you to tell your stories?
Lots of journalists struggle with the emotional fallout that stems from the work they do. This is a stressful job, especially when reporters are under threat from oppressive regimes. Media corporations go to great lengths to ensure the physical safety of their correspondents but rarely show as much concern for their long-term psychological and emotional well-being. I had a fairly decent level of mental health care available to me, but it took me a long time to step forward and take advantage of that. One of the reasons for telling my part of this story is to show others that seeking help is the right thing to do.

How can civilians better understand military life?
The majority of military service is laughing with friends and being immature around explosives and ammunition—not killing or being shot at. Civilians understand life without the threat of exploding poppy fields and mortars. Veterans do not, and that’s okay. A divide between civilians and veterans will always exist; that doesn’t mean we can’t narrow that divide. I say we start with honest conversation. It’s the only way for people to connect with war and its aftermath. I’d rather war be a romantic idea to a minority than for it to be a reality for the majority.

What does life look like in a war zone?
FO: At first it’s exciting and compelling, but it can become draining if you don’t allow yourself occasional breaks from the stress. You become hyperaware of your environment and the threats it may hold; this stays with you long after you’ve left.

How can we overcome the stigma surrounding PTSD and other mental health issues?
TB: I believe that consistent storytelling about war and trauma is the key to moving forward the conversation about war’s impact on mental health.

FO: In writing our book, we wanted to put our struggles out in the open so that others can relate to our experiences. For the most part, we don’t discuss this openly, and we often don’t understand what to do, or who to talk to, and how. The only way to challenge that stigma is to bring the issues forward so they can be discussed without shame and without fear that it will adversely effect a person’s career.

How have your shared experiences helped shape your friendship?
FO: We’ll always have that common thread of Afghanistan, but now we tend to talk more about journalism than war. Writing, instead of fighting, has become the reference point for our friendship.

TB: During our time together in Afghanistan, my fellow marines and I called Fin, “old man.”
He was nearly twice our age and full of grey hair. What makes our friendship so strong is knowing that I can trust him with my life. After being shot at together, asking for advice about journalism
is easy.

What will you be working on next?
Following graduate school in 2015, I began developing The War Horse, the only nonprofit newsroom dedicated to investigating the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs. During my time at the Jacksonville, NC, Daily News, I was fortunate to write short profiles of World War II veterans. I hated being the cliché military reporter chasing after veterans’ stories during their last years of life, yet I knew that military reporting was missing its gold standard. Within our first year of publishing, War Horse reporting has changed military law and sparked congressional and federal investigations into pandemic sexual exploitation throughout the DoD.

FO: I’m still trying to determine the direction my career will take in the years ahead. I expect to write, photograph, and teach in ways that I find rewarding and fulfilling.

Stephanie Sendaula is Associate Editor, LJ Reviews

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About Stephanie Sendaula

Stephanie Sendaula ( is an Associate Editor at Library Journal.


  1. Karl Helicher says:

    Excellent interview. Good additional insights into this fine book!

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