As a young Marine, Thomas Brennan was skeptical of the news media, viewing it almost the same as the enemy on the battlefield. However, after an embedded journalist came to his aid while under fire, his whole perspective shifted. It changed so much that in his life after service, he ended up spearheading, The War Horse, a nonprofit newsroom that reports on the human impact of military service.
A scruffy dude with weird gear
In 2010, Brennan was a squad leader, responsible for 13 Marines and one Navy corpsman at a small outpost on the side of a mountain in Afghanistan, where they only had one tent.
“One day, we were carrying, like, hundreds of pounds of stuff. Just miserable, for miles,” Brennan said. “We throw our stuff down. I look over in the corner, and there’s this scruffy, skinny dude with this weird-looking gear. And I think I wanted to throw him over the side of the hill.”
The man was Finbarr O’Reilly, a photojournalist, who was newly embedded with Brennan and his troops. “I think for the most part, the military is kind of ingrained not to trust the media,” O’Reilly said. “And suddenly, this stranger is introduced with a camera. There was a lot of suspicion. [Brennan] kind of strategically positioned himself between me and his squad.”
For Brennan, this was the first time a journalist got to know him and his troops by listening to their stories. “He wasn’t afraid to do something dangerous, right alongside us. Anytime that you’re under fire with someone, it brings you together,” Brennan said.
An ominous mission
One day the unit was tasked with a mission to push the enemy deeper into the city. Even before the patrol began, Brennan did not have a good feeling about the assignment and felt something bad was coming. As Brennan, O’Reilly and the other troops turned a corner in a muddy alleyway, a firefight broke out.
“I haven’t found any type of adrenaline that hits you the way that bullet whizzing by your head does,” Brennan said.
As Brennan ran into the line of fire, O’Reilly stood behind, taking pictures of the firefight and capturing an Afghan police officer who was lining up a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) to fire in the direction of the Taliban.
He missed the enemy, and struck a telephone pole, causing the RPG to explode directly over Brennan and another Marine.
“And then I heard the booms and the machine guns and rockets. My guys ran through a wall of bullets and grabbed us and pulled us back,” Brennan said.
Four Marines had been wounded during the firefight. O’Reilly came to the aid of Brennan, helping him stay on route, walking beside him with his hand hooked around his arm.
“That’s when Finn really went from being a reporter to being a fellow human,” Brennan said.
Within hours of the firefight, O’Reilly’s photos were published online. But for Brennan, his Marine Corps career was over, after being diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic-stress disorder due to the battle.
A new chance to serve
Upon returning home, Brennan recalls pushing his wife and daughter away, disengaging and falling into a drinking habit. “I needed to accept the fact that I was never going to get over what I went through. Combat is loud, chaotic, fear, anger, sadness. It’s got all the emotions,” he said.
As a result, he started therapy but didn’t know where to begin. Due to his brain injury, he was struggling to put words together verbally, so his therapist recommended writing down his thoughts. From there he just started writing and writing. Eventually, he wrote a thank-you letter to O’Reilly for his photos and to tell him how much the images helped him recover in therapy.
Brennan sent the note to a New York Times editor whom O’Reilly had worked with while embedded in Afghanistan. They had exchanged messages the year prior when fact-checking O’Reilly’s account. Brennan was hoping simply to get some grammar help before sending the letter to O’Reilly. But, just a few hours later, the editor asked if The New York Times could publish the piece he submitted.
Although journalism was never on Brennan’s radar, he recognized through this process the need for reporting that bridges the military and civilian divide. So, in 2014, he attended Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he developed his plan for the War Horse and raised money online to make his dream a reality.
Today, the publication has won top industry awards and has most recently covered burn pits, toxic exposure, the criminal justice system, gender issues in uniform and health care, and has served as a vehicle for first-person reflections, representing all eras of service.
“The military’s job is to win our wars. And if we can help hold people accountable in a way that makes sure that our experiment and democracy survives, that’s what I see our mission as. That’s what drives me. Journalism is another opportunity to serve,” Brennan said.
This is the seventh episode from AARP Studios’ new documentary series Reporting for Duty. Each month you can expect a new inspirational story about veterans and military families at YouTube.com/aarp.
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.