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Marine, Combat Photographer Recount Mental Wounds Of War

TJ Brennan (left) sits dazed with a concussion from an RPG explosion during a Taliban ambush in Afghanistan's Helmand Province, Nov. 1, 2010.
Finbarr O'Reilly/REUTERS
TJ Brennan (left) sits dazed with a concussion from an RPG explosion during a Taliban ambush in Afghanistan's Helmand Province, Nov. 1, 2010.
Marine, Combat Photographer Recount Mental Wounds Of War
Marine, Combat Photographer Recount Mental Wounds Of War GUEST: Thomas J. Brennan, co-author, "Shooting Ghosts"

When Marine Thomas Jay Brennan was awarded the Purple Heart after suffering a severe concussion in Afghanistan, he felt sick. He did not feel worthy of what he called quote invisible injuries. Raiders photojournalists Finbarr O'Reilly was with Brennan's squad when he was wounded, and the two soon became friends. They have written about the trauma of war in the new book shooting ghosts. A U.S. Marine, a, photographer in their journey back from more. Brennan recently spoke with Michael Lipkin.The book opens with the leading a group of Marines through a village in Afghanistan. What was the goal of the mission and what happened?The goal of the mission on November 1 of 2010 was to secure more of a local village we had been patrolling for the last roughly two months that we could establish a new Afghan national police checkpoint and hopefully get more of the civilians to come back into the village.Reporter: What happened on that mission?What happened on that mission was, I sustained a traumatic brain injury during an ambush and it was with 15 of my Marines and I and a little village and we came under fire. You are surrounded on three sides. There was an Afghan national police officer that shot a rocket that blew up a few feet next to myself and another Marine and rendered both of us unconscious.He was trying to hit the but accidentally hit you and another Marine.Correct.How badly we hurt?I sustained with a call a grade three concussion. Loss of consciousness for roughly a minute or so. It could have been worse. I have my arms, and my legs but the brain is a pretty sensitive part of your body so that left lasting residuals for me.The right that you lied to doctors about what you were feeling as you are recovering so you could return to your command more quickly but you admit in that moment that your mental symptoms and those memory problems, dizziness and anxiety could put you and your squad at serious risk. One of your goals in writing this book is to help civilians understand military life. Some might say why go back early if you were self-aware enough to realize that this could endanger the people you care about.I try to talk myself out of my symptoms, purely selfish on my part. In hindsight I risk the lives of every Marine in my squad by lying to my doctors. At the same time, so many told me things will get better, headaches will go it. He will go back to normal. You look at it statistically, most people with traumatic brain injuries don't experience residuals. I told myself I was going to be part of the majority and the driving factor behind why I had to get back out to my guys was because I didn't want to live with the guilt of something happening to them well I was not there and not able to protect them. It was a double-edged sword but me being very stubborn and very selfish during a time when I really did need to say I need help things out right.When you return to commanded you fill compromised based on your symptoms?Yes. Once I was back I did not know how to say I'm not okay now and also you don't realize everything all at once. When I got back and start doing my pre-combat checks and inspections and I would go over the identification numbers and blood types and things like that of my Marines in one day I noticed I had a hard time with their numbers and the next day notice a had a hard time remembering how to do a medical evacuation request. Wasn't like boom I was back and all of a sudden every symptom came to a head, it's been a slow accumulation and understanding of mice and -- symptoms over time.When deployment ended he returned back to base what finally drove you to seek help?My wife was the reason why I got help. Initially, when I first got home I knew I needed to get help, my wife was telling may I needed to get help she was seeing symptoms I was experiencing. When I was getting my fitness reports, the grading scale I was getting my reports back and they were they were grading me as being a good Marine when you get that kind of message you're also thinking something is not right I need help that is initially why I talk myself out of it. And then it wasn't until I pursue treatment and some of the Marines in my command started referring to me [ Indiscernible ] my fitness report bottomed out at one point to where I was ranked a terrible Marine within four-5 months of the initial report ranked at the top of the Christmas tree. It was a very difficult time to admit I needed help and also fill as it was welcomed and I also felt as though I was the train some around me.After you retired you trained as a journalist and eventually found of the warhorse, a nonprofit focused on investigating the departments of Defense and veterans affairs . You quickly break a major story, the nude photo scandal. What has happened since then?When I think of the successes that have come out or positive changes that have come out, the impact made as a result of the war host -- War Horse reporting number is United, the vote to criminalize revenge porn that to me is one of the most significant things that have come out of our reporting as far as the Marine Corps and Department of Defense's stands on what Marines United was and what type of conduct was going on, I firmly believe that it was a strong PR push to rebrand sexual exploitation is inappropriate misconduct. I think that is a failure on behalf of the military. It is sexual exploitation, it is sexual harassment it's weapon iced you of social media. Looking at it as people behaving badly online is just going to perpetuate the problem in the long run.You retired five years ago but based on reporting since then, have the improve the way they treat traumatic brain injuries like yours?I have seen instances where it appears they have and I have seen plenty of instances where it appears as though they haven't improved. Where I still feel the military is failing in the realm of mental health is if you are a Navy corpsman or medic, anyone who works with a servicemember overseas under fire the fact that you are not mandated to have to go to two or three mental health appointments is mind blowing. I know that is something that we have spoken about before. If you put someone in a body bag you should have to go to mental health treatment. I hope he will take more initiative on that conversation and put that into play.That was Thomas Brennan celebrating with producer -- speaking with Mr. Michael Lipkin.

In 2010 Thomas J. Brennan was in Afghanistan's Helmand Province leading 15 other Marines to secure a local village and establish a new police checkpoint. The squad was ambushed by Taliban fighters on three sides and Brennan suffered a severe concussion.

The traumatic brain injury affected his memory, but Brennan lied to military doctors about his symptoms so he could return to his command.

"It was purely selfish on my part and in hindsight, I risked the lives of every Marine in my squad," Brennan said. "I didn't want to live with the guilt of something happening to them while I wasn't there and me not being able to protect them."


After he medically retired in 2012, Brennan studied journalism and founded the non-profit The War Horse, which broke the Marines United nude photo scandal. Brennan has written about the traumas of war in the new book, "Shooting Ghosts: A U.S. Marine, A Combat Photographer and Their Journey Back From War." His co-author is Finbarr O'Reilly, a Reuters photojournalist who was embedded with Brennan's unit when he was attacked.

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Brennan joined KPBS Midday Edition on Tuesday to discuss whether the Marines have improved how it treats brain injuries and what it took for him to finally seek help.