After Marine Sgt. Thomas (“TJ”) Brennan was hit by the blast from a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan in 2010, he suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him unable to recall much of his immediate past — including, at times, the name of his own daughter.
“When I got blown up, it erased a lot of my memories,” Brennan says.
Brennan began therapies to address his TBI. He used the 200 letters he’d exchanged with his wife to put together a broad narrative of his time at war. When it came to the grenade blast itself, Brennan pieced together the sequence of events surrounding his injury with the help of Finbarr O'Reilly, a photographer who had embedded with Brennan’s unit in Afghanistan.
“I have the whole sequence documented of him,” O'Reilly says. “One of the things I … [photographed] was this Afghan national policeman who fired the rocket that ultimately went astray and blew up very close to TJ, knocking him unconscious … and the explosion afterwards, and the guys who went to recover TJ.”
Back in the U.S., both men struggled with the aftereffects of war. Brennan suffered from PTSD and debilitating depression, while O'Reilly grappled with the psychological toll of years spent documenting human brutality in conflict zones across the world. Together, they collaborated on a memoir, called Shooting Ghosts, about what Brennan refers to as the “invisible injuries” of war.
Photos (Top) A U.S. Marine from the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, Alpha Company looks out as an evening storm gathers above an outpost near Kunjak, in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province.
Bottom: Photographer Finbarr O'Reilly says he was drawn to Afghanistan’s “rugged, cinematic desert landscape.”