"A majestic book." Bessel van der Kolk, MD, author of The Body Keeps the Score
A unique joint memoir by a U.S. Marine and a conflict photographer whose unlikely friendship helped both heal their war-wounded bodies and souls
"The dueling-piano spirit of SHOOTING GHOSTS works because its authors are so committed to transparency, admitting readers into the dark crevices of their isolation." Wall St Journal
War tears people apart, but it can also bring them together. Through the unpredictability of war and its aftermath, a decorated Marine sergeant and a world-trotting war photographer became friends, their bond forged as they patrolled together through the dusty alleyways of Helmand province and camped side by side in the desert. It deepened after Sergeant T. J. Brennan was injured during a Taliban ambush, and both returned home. Brennan began to suffer from the effects of his injury and from the fallout of his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. But war correspondents experience similar rates of posttraumatic stress as combat veterans. The causes can be different, but guilt plays a prominent role in both. For Brennan, it’s the things he’s done, or didn’t do, that haunt him. Finbarr O’Reilly’s conscience is nagged by the task of photographing people at their most vulnerable while being able to do little to help, and his survival guilt as colleagues die on the job. Their friendship offered them both a shot at redemption.
As we enter the fifteenth year of continuous war, it is increasingly urgent not just to document the experiences of the battlefield but also to probe the reverberations that last long after combatants and civilians have returned home, and to understand the many faces trauma takes. Shooting Ghosts looks at the horrors of war directly, but then turns to a journey that draws on our growing understanding of what recovery takes. Their story, told in alternating first-person narratives, is about the things they saw and did, the ways they have been affected, and how they have navigated the psychological aftershocks of war and wrestled with reforming their own identities and moral centers. While war never really ends for those who’ve lived through it, this book charts the ways two survivors have found to calm the ghosts and reclaim a measure of peace.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Thomas James Brennan, recipient of the Purple Heart, was a sergeant in the Marine Corps until medically retired in 2012. He served in Iraq during the battle of Fallujah and was a squad leader in Afghanistan’s Helmand province with the First Battalion, Eighth Marines. Since 2012, he has been a regular contributor to The New York Times At War blog. Brennan was the military affairs reporter at the Jacksonville Daily News from early 2013 through mid-2014. He has a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia, and is the founder of TheWarHorse.org, a nonprofit online newsroom dedicated to chronicling the effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Finbarr O’Reilly is an internationally acclaimed photographer who has spent more than a decade working in Africa and the Middle East and who has won the World Press Photo of the Year, the highest individual honor in news photography. He was profiled in the documentary film Under Fire: Journalists in Combat (Peabody Award winner, Oscar finalist) and has held fellowships at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and the MacDowell Colony. He was a Reuters senior photographer for Israel and the Palestinian Territories in 2014.
Read an Excerpt
Prologue: An Odd Alliance
We can imagine that among those early hunters and warriors single individuals . . . saw what others did not. . . . It is when two such persons discover one another, when, whether with immense difficulties and semi-articulate fumblings or with what would seem to us amazing and elliptical speed, they share their vision—it is then that Friendship is born. And instantly they stand together in an immense solitude. — C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves
Finbarr, Nabu Agha, Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan, November 1, 2010
An explosion. The shock wave kicks through my chest. Then silence, a moment of calm as the battle holds still in that instant before everything changes. Dust hangs in the air. Two Marines are down, motionless. Then another bolts toward them through the haze of confusion. There’s shouting and shooting. The spell is broken. Time resumes, sprints forward. They move; I move. My shutter clicks, recording the aftermath of a blast that will weld my life to that of an injured Marine, Sergeant Thomas James Brennan, leader of Third Platoon, Fourth Squad, Able Company, First Battalion, Eighth Marines.
The emotional impact of the explosion reverberates across continents. A few hours later, Sergeant Brennan’s mother, Karen, is at Boston Children’s Hospital, where she works as a radiology assessment nurse. Karen’s husband, Jim, sends her an e-mail with a Web link that automatically updates my photos as I file them from Afghanistan. He often does this so they can keep tabs on their twenty- four- year- old son, whom they both call TJ. Between the time Jim sends the message and the time Karen clicks on the refreshed link, photos of TJ lying limp in the dirt have been added to the news feed. Karen recoils from her desk when the images pop up on her screen. She can’t read the captions. All she can see is her son’s pale, blank face. She pitches forward and drops her head between her knees. Three coworkers rush over to ask what’s wrong. Karen gestures at the screen while hyperventilating. “I don’t know if he’s alive or dead,” she says. One of her coworkers, who is also from a military family, reads the photo caption and tells Karen that TJ has been injured by an explosion but that he’s alive. Karen asks the nurse to close the computer. Then she weeps.
Finbarr, Boston, October 2012
Two years later, TJ and I sit side by side in a silver sedan, cruising down an open highway as strip malls and autumn scenery slide by. It’s a Saturday afternoon in late October and we’re in Massachusetts, on our way to his parents’ house in Randolph, a suburban town with wide, curving roads and large houses set among trees. We are six and a half thousand miles from where we fi rst met. The last time we sat together was nine- teen months ago in Afghanistan. Much has changed. Over there, he was the leader of fourteen U.S. Marines (and one Navy Corpsman) deployed to Helmand Province. I was a photojournalist embedded with his unit. We were leaner back then, our bodies tapered by the demands of our jobs. No matter how many high- calorie ration packs we consumed, the weight still melted from our bodies on long foot patrols under the burden of heavy gear and brutal heat. Now we’re both living in the United States, far from the conflicts that have marked our lives and within striking distance of countless fast- food joints. I’m no longer carrying my cameras everywhere and he’s no longer armed with a rifle. Our individual journeys from Afghanistan to here have not been easy, but we’ve leaned on each other in unexpected ways. The skepticism and even hostility we first felt toward each other have grown into trust.
War tears people apart, but it also flings them together. Through the unpredictability of war and its aftermath, Sergeant Brennan and I became friends. Like most people who know him well, I call him TJ. He calls me Fin. We forged an unlikely bond patrolling together through the dusty alleyways of Helmand Province and camping side by side for weeks in the desert. That bond only deepened after TJ was injured during that Taliban ambush and then later, after we both returned from Afghanistan. When TJ began to suffer from the effects of his injury and from the painful memories of his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he told me about his struggles. They sounded familiar.
People rarely consider it, but war correspondents experience similar rates of post- traumatic stress as combat veterans. The causes can be different, but guilt plays a prominent role for both. For TJ it’s the things he’s done, or didn’t do, that haunt him. My own conscience is nagged by the fact that I am paid to photograph people at their most vulnerable while I’m able to do little to help. I photographed TJ moments after he was injured and nearly killed. Now our friendship offers us both a shot at redemption. TJ sought my help as he confronted his altered reality. Collaborating with him restored something within me at a time when I was confronting my own struggles in the wake of war. It took getting to know each other for us to understand what trauma means, what it does to those who live with it, and how to cope. We are still learning.
Our perspectives on war differ— I’m a witness and TJ is a participant. But like TJ and many other young men, I was drawn to conflict zones. TJ had his own reasons (including the belief that his Marine dress blues would get him laid) whereas I saw the intensity of combat as an ancient rite of passage into manhood, a measure of my worth (and yes, sure, as a way to impress women). He may have known a little about what he was getting into, but I was ignorant of what that journey might cost. TJ and I now embody the stereotypes of the broken military veteran and the damaged war journalist, but such labels— while true— hardly tell the whole story, and serve little purpose. Neither of us is a victim. We both chose to go to war. We seek no sympathy or pity. What we’re trying to figure out now is how we can lead purposeful lives after experiencing the sense of loss and meaninglessness wrought by war. The last thing we want to do is perpetuate the myth of the trauma hero.
“Every true war story is a story of trauma and recovery,” author and Iraq war veteran Roy Scranton wrote in a 2015 article for the Los Angeles Review of Books. “A boy goes to war, his head full of romantic visions of glory, courage, and sacrifice, his heart yearning to achieve heroic deeds, but on the field of battle he finds only death and horror. He sees, suffers, and causes brutal and brutalizing violence. Such violence wounds the soldier’s very soul.”
Afterward, upon returning home, Scranton writes, the boy, now a man and a veteran, is haunted and unable to make sense of his memory whereas most people don’t want to know about the awful truths of war, the political powers want to sanitize its horrors, and anyone who wasn’t there can’t understand what it was like.
“The truth of war, the veteran comes to learn, is a truth beyond words, a truth that can be known only by having been there, an unspeakable truth he must bear for society. So goes the myth of the trauma hero.”
Focusing solely on the psychological trauma American service members have endured allows us to forget the death and destruction they are responsible for, Scranton warns. Or, as the Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle puts it, “Not only will America go to your country and kill all your people, but they’ll come back twenty years later and make a movie about how killing your people made their soldiers feel sad.”
The joke cuts deep for the bitter truth it reflects. America’s interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have been disastrous, and costly, both in human and financial terms. Iraq and Afghanistan are even more divided than before, the region is in a state of chaos, and the resulting instability has spilled into Europe and caused a backlash at home. So why risk excusing the aggressors? Because this isn’t a book about American foreign policy, or those who make the decision to go to war, or who is the true aggressor. It’s about one low-ranking individual who carried out his nation’s order to fight and is forced to live with the consequences of his government’s actions.
And it’s about how our stories became entangled and how, after years of striving to produce artfully composed photographs of violence and suffering, I grew wary of my role covering conflict and of the myth of the war photographer— the Hollywood archetype of the dashing, scarf- adorned loner flitting from one war zone to the next with girlfriends as expendable as bullets. That cliché ignores the doubts, fears, questions, loneliness, and pain that shadow those who do this kind of work— and all the things that create the other cliché of the war photographer as tragic, fallen hero. The reality, of course, is more nuanced.
As a culture, we romanticize war— through films, TV, video games, and the media— and, as younger men socialized to idolize heroes, both TJ and I were seduced by the idea of war as a proving ground. We dreamed of exploits we could be proud of— not of experiences that might kill, maim, or break us, although such risks were inherent in the appeal. We needed to know whether we could meet those challenges and rise to the occasion.
“We went to expose ourselves to fear and interrogate it,” Elena Ferrante writes in My Brilliant Friend. So it was with us, and this book is the result of that reckoning.
People have been narrating their encounters with violence since the first cavemen etched stick figures into stone, depicting their hunting exploits. Like them, we have zeroed in on our individual experiences. Our stories are not those of Iraqis or Afghans, Congolese or Libyans, and we wouldn’t presume to explore those stories here. We do not know their inner worlds, their hopes and fears, but we imagine their struggles are as real and complicated as our own. I’ve spent my career documenting other people’s lives in turmoil. Most journalists are averse to becoming the story. Our profession expects us to be impartial chroniclers of unfolding events. Remaining objectively detached lies at the heart of what we do, especially for a newswire journalist. In keeping with this ethos, I was initially reluctant to offer myself up for public consumption, but I’ve drawn inspiration from TJ. He’s shown me how writing about personal trauma can be cathartic, and how telling one’s own story can help others, whether they are members of the military, the media, or fellow civilians facing their own personal struggles. We both grapple with our less- than- heroic— but very human— behavior in the face of fear, regret, and confusion. Our book is about the things we have seen and done, the ways we have been affected, and how we have navigated the psychological aftershocks of war. It’s the latter part of that journey that matters most. The forty- minute drive from Boston gives me time to think about what I’ll say to Karen and Jim once we reach their house on Smith Road. I owe them an apology. My haste to fi le dramatic combat images of TJ crumpled in the dust means they saw my pictures before the military could send word of what had happened.
When TJ told me how it all unfolded, I felt awful. I not only capitalized on the suffering of others but made the situation worse. Every Marine or soldier I photographed, of course, had a family— but few were on my direct daily feed. Parents of deployed service members have enough to contend with without hearing through the media that their son or daughter has been hurt. War has always been violent, brutal, and traumatic, but the explosion of digital technology and the immediacy of news coverage from Iraq and Afghanistan have brought those wars closer to home than ever before. For friends and family this has the disorienting eff ect of allowing them to witness war from afar without being able to fully understand the depth of that experience or, sometimes, to have proper context or preparation for what they’re seeing. For those who are deployed, access to Skype or Facebook and overseas calls allow them to feel both more connected to and more isolated from their lives back home. As it always did, family life continues without them, only now they can see pixelated versions of their children growing up online while marriages and relationships grow— or unravel— in real time, with pictures and a soundtrack. Technology has narrowed the gap created by being sent off to distant lands to fight, but it has not eased war’s burden, nor the sense of dislocation it breeds upon returning home. It took Homer’s Odysseus ten years return from the Trojan wars, but today’s service members can fl y back to the United States in a matter of hours. The disorientation can be a shock to any system.
That sense of dislocation is something to which I can relate. By 2012 I was forty- one and had lived in Africa for more than a decade, covering conflicts across the continent, in the Middle East, and in Afghanistan. I was no stranger to violence and suffering. My career as a journalist is built on it. Bouncing from one trouble zone to the next, a willing witness with cameras, I’ve found myself in places where our primal urges playout in deadly confrontations. I’ve always sought the light in such places— while covering wars I’ve reported on Congolese music and hair- styles, Ivorian art, and graffiti in Libya and Afghanistan— but over time, my ability to find hope amid despair begins to fade. A constant shadow is cast by grim realities: violence, deprivation, and the suffering brought about by the nastier impulses of human nature. Working in such places has given my life a sense of purpose, meaning, and adventure. But it has also taken a toll. The emotional weight has grown heavy.
I’d been in touch with TJ’s family before his injury, e-mailing them occasional photos from Afghanistan at his request. I’ve also been in contact with them online a number of times since, but this visit to their home in Randolph is the first time I’ll meet them in person. We park the car in the driveway and I’m welcomed with a hug from Karen and a handshake from Jim. It’s a week before Halloween and a small carved pumpkin sits on the front porch. Inside, a fake skeleton with a life- sized skull stares into the kitchen of the cozy and cluttered home. A rotary phone hangs at shoulder height on the wall, the curly cord dangling to the floor. A pit bull stands on its hind legs, looking in through the living room window. The house is decorated with family pictures perched on countertops and wedged into the glass panels of crockery cupboards. Stacks of baseball caps sit atop the shelving units. The walls are adorned with framed embroideries, including one that says HOME SWEET HOME and another, KAREN AND JAMES, with their wedding date, 4-3-82, and the words TRUE HEARTS UNITED.
A separate bit of framed embroidery includes the words of an old Irish blessing that my paternal grandfather once wrote for me in calligraphy. I kept a copy of it on my bedroom wall for many years and it feels strange yet familiar to see it here again:
May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.
A longer version of the blessing includes another line: May the hand of a friend always be near.
TJ’s brother, Kevin, who at twenty- two is five years younger than TJ, sits on the couch watching TV while Taylor, their twenty- year- old sister, helps in the kitchen. It’s late afternoon and TJ suggests we take a walk along his street and through the woods behind his house to the Rock, a granite mound rising above the treetops.
Our odd alliance is sometimes uncomfortable, and by 2012 our roles have grown even more disparate than they were in Afghanistan. I’m at Harvard, where I’m spending a year on a fellowship studying psychology and trauma. TJ is a high school graduate in the dying weeks of his Marine Corps career with no job prospects in sight. He’s a self- described “dumb grunt,” an infantryman whose “best before” date has passed. Physically broken and mentally scarred, he will be medically retired in two months and faces the difficult transition from military to civilian life. Yet we make fun of our differences and remain steadfast in a relationship anchored in shared experience.
“Just because you’re some fancy Ivy Leaguer now, don’t go thinking you’re something special,” he says.
“I’m obviously not that special if I’m still hanging out with the likes of you, Pawn,” I say, using the nickname TJ has adopted in reference to his role as a disposable piece in America’s war games.
As we scramble to the summit of the Rock, TJ says he used to hang out here as a kid, playing cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians with his cousins and friends. He would build piles of sticks and stones and pretend they were booby traps laden with dynamite. He would detonate them on his friends by calling out his own explosive sounds.
“Then we would argue about why they should be wounded or killed,” he says. “It’s easier to deny the effects of imaginary explosives.”
TJ tells me the Rock is where he let his childhood imagination run wild, but aside from occasionally enacting skirmishes as G.I. Joes with his cousins, he rarely indulged in war games. He preferred the idea of rebelling against the law and, like many boys, including me, he had a destructive streak and enjoyed the idea of making things go boom. “I was a homegrown terrorist,” he says with a laugh. When he got to high school, the Rock was where he came to smoke cigarettes and weed, get drunk, and fool around with girls. Sometimes he would steal his dad’s beer to trade for smokes and pot.
“It’s where I did things I didn’t want my parents to catch me doing,” he says.
The leafy suburban neighborhood in Randolph isn’t so different from where I grew up in Vancouver, Canada, and where my younger brother, Donal, and I had a fascination with playing soldiers. With our friends we would read World War II comics and dress up in army fatigues and enact heroic battle scenes, our faces muddied as we scrambled over backyard obstacle courses and lobbed pinecones as grenades and opened fi re at each other with cap guns. Sometimes my brother and I played these games while visiting our grandmother on the small dairy farm where my mother grew up in southern Wales. A German fighter plane had been shot down and crashed in one of the farm’s back fields during World War II and, imaginations running wild, Donal and I would creep along the hedgerows pretending to hunt the downed pilot while trying to find any lingering trace of the doomed plane. On one of those summer visits to Wales when I was a teenager, my mother’s father, Ivor Bradshaw, told me about his travels in India, North Africa, and Italy during World War II. It was the only time I ever heard him talk about those days, and the story has always stayed with me. He described the dry heat of the Libyan Desert ahead of the Allied amphibious landing on Sicily in July 1943, and how they came ashore on the Italian island amid strong winds. Then came the noise, the dust, and the thirst.
“They told us we would have air cover for the landing, and we did,” he said. “But it was from the bloody Germans.”
As Ivor told it, he scrambled forward through enemy fi re. Artillery pounded the beach and the sea behind him, sending plumes of sand and water skyward. A piece of shrapnel tore the arm off the soldier next to him. Others nearby were killed. And the noise. Ivor thought he would go deaf. But by the end of the day, the Allies had moved off the beach and taken control of the port of Syracuse. Ivor didn’t see much action after that— at least not of the combat variety— and spent the rest of the war enjoying the pleasures of Italian food, drink, and women. The only injury he sustained was a broken ankle from falling off a cliff while staggering home drunk late one night. His war stories became etched in my young mind. Ivor had been part of something historic, something important. But most of all, Ivor had seen combat and survived. To a young boy, nothing else compared.
“Bloody awful it was,” he said, rolling a cigarette. “You’re lucky you don’t have to go to war.”
In an eff ort to understand what he’d lived through, I read war comics and history books and watched war films and documentaries. The moral clarity of World War II and the heroic light in which its victors were portrayed only elevated Ivor’s status in my youthful eyes. When I dressed up and played war games with Donal and our friends, I imagined reliving scenes Ivor had described. And while I never considered joining the military, I glorified war the way boys do. It’s easy to understand why young men lust for war. Every soldier is imagined as a hero, never a broken victim.
Reflecting on my own path to Afghanistan, I wonder what inspired TJ to leave a place like Randolph to go and fight in foreign wars. He tells me that when he finished high school in 2003, he knew he wasn’t ready for college. His mother was tough on him about his grades and he didn’t want to disappoint her by screwing up. He was more afraid of telling her he would fail in school than he was about going to war. During high school he’d spent four years working as a breakfast cook and dishwasher in Sal’s calzone restaurant, saving up enough money to buy himself a muscle car, a maroon 1973 Mercury Cougar XR-7, which he painted black. He learned the value of a dollar by paying for his own gas and insurance.
“I didn’t want to fuck it up and wind up with debt and no degree,” TJ says, adding that his dad told him he had to get a job if he wanted to live at home. “He wasn’t gonna let me be a lazy dick just sitting around the house.”
Cooking breakfast at Sal’s wasn’t going to cut it. Both TJ’s grandfathers were Navy veterans of the Second World War, with his grandfather John having served in the Pacific. His father had also wanted to serve, but partial blindness in both eyes kept him from duty. After the 9/ 11 attacks, the United States was engaged in a major overseas conflict for the first time in a generation. An imagination honed on the Rock turned to the war in Iraq.
“I wanted to know if I had what it took,” TJ says. “I thought I was ready to kill. Serial- killer shit always fascinated me. Not, like, doing it, but their minds. And I read about war and how you just flip a switch. I was curious whether I had the switch.”
During his junior year of high school TJ had talked with his parents about joining the reserves so that the military would cover the cost of his college tuition. Two years later, when he came home nine days before the second anniversary of 9/ 11 and told his parents that he’d enlisted for active duty with the Marine Corps infantry, Karen went silent. Then she made him promise he would still go to college. Jim asked him if it was what he really wanted to do. With the certainty and invincibility of youth, TJ assured him that it was.
The stories fill in some of the outlines of TJ’s life that he’d only sketched in Afghanistan. I’m curious to know more, but it’s getting late and we’re hungry. We scramble down from the Rock and wander back to the house, where Karen has prepared something special for dinner. TJ tells me not to expect too much. In Afghanistan we shared weeks of bland military rations, but he always teases me about my preference for what he calls “ exotic menus”— sushi, calamari, pungent French cheeses, spicy Indian curries, gourmet coffee, and African dishes featuring crocodile, ostrich, or antelope. TJ loves his mother’s cooking but thinks I need a heads-up.
“I know you have a refined palate, so just be ready for some good American home cooking.”
The Brennan family clearly wants to impress me, so I’m curious when we’re summoned to the dinner table. Out comes the main course, an entire chicken battered in— what the hell is that?
“It’s Cap’n Crunch chicken,” TJ announces, explaining that this dish is poultry rolled in egg and dipped in crushed-up Cap’n Crunch, a sweet corn and oat breakfast cereal, and then baked. “You’ve never heard of Cap’n Crunch chicken?”
It’s a new one for me, that’s for sure. We dig in.
Dinner conversation revolves around questions about the nature of my work, my family, and what I’ve been doing during my first two months at Harvard. I eventually pluck up the courage to make my long- planned apology. I had previously e-mailed Karen to express my regret about causing her and Jim grief and anxiety by sending those pictures on the day TJ was injured. I still feel the need to do so in person. Karen eases my guilt, echoing what she’s already told me over e-mail.
“Yes, the way I found out about TJ’s injury was not the best, but at least I knew, and knew that he was OK, so to speak. I work in a hospital, so my colleagues took great care of my emotional needs,” she wrote in our exchanges. “We obviously were all very upset. I was not angry with you per se, but I’m not very computer or media savvy so was shocked that this happened in front of my eyes.”
I learn that when she saw my pictures on the day of the ambush, it took Karen more than fifteen minutes before she could stand up to go and find somewhere private to call Jim. When he answered the phone, Karen yelled at him.
“Why would you send me that picture?”
“What picture?” Jim asked.
Unaware that the Web link had updated my photos, Jim thought he’d sent Karen images from the previous day showing TJ on a foot patrol and during a quiet day at the outpost where he was based. Jim was on the phone at the same time with TJ’s wife, Melinda, who had called from Jacksonville, North Carolina, where the couple lives, to let them know about TJ’s injury and my photos. But it was too late. The damage was done.
Much later I will learn that Karen and Jim had already buried one child, Caitlyn, who was born fourteen weeks prematurely in 1987. She was delivered by emergency C-section and lived for two days. Jim held her only once before she died. Karen never saw her alive. The couple spent years in therapy afterward. They rarely spoke about Caitlyn’s death with their other children, but on Halloween the family painted pumpkins for her, and they visited Caitlyn’s grave on her birthday. At the graveyard TJ and Kevin and would play hide- and- seek behind the head- stones as their father cleared the overgrown grass from the edges of Caitlyn’s pink marble stone. Jim would brush the dirt and grass clippings from the engraved letters and the outline of a lamb. When the parents stood to leave, Jim always hugged Karen as she cried. The kids gave them their time but always watched to see whether Jim would cry. They never caught him. Caitlyn’s death wasn’t the first in Karen’s family. Her brother was murdered when she was a teenager living in New Jersey. She and Jim have lived with violence and loss. Knowing that my photos added to their pain is unsettling.
Still, they tell me that having my regular updates and reports from Afghanistan actually put their minds at ease. At least they could see the dangers their son faced daily on deployment and felt closer to him as a result. With my images, and an audio slide show showing firefights, explosions, and foot patrols through hostile villages, it was impossible for TJ to pretend he’d been posted to some quiet location far from the fighting— as many service members tell their families to relieve worry back home. Their assurances don’t eliminate my sense of guilt, but I believe the family doesn’t hold anything against me. And as it turned out, neither TJ’s parents nor his wife, Melinda, ever heard anything from the military about the incident or his injuries.
“I was surprised by that,” Karen says.
She shouldn’t have been. It’s only an early hint of the looming disaster that will soon emerge as the monumental failure of the U.S. government to provide adequate care for those who have fought and served overseas.
After dinner TJ drives me home to my apartment near Harvard. On parting we wonder when we’ll meet again. We agree to make it happen before too long. Seeing each other away from the battlefield has been strange but also reassuring. Things have been difficult for us both for a variety of reasons, but we’ve made progress together and individually. We have no idea that, for both of us, the hardest parts of our journeys still lie ahead.
Table of Contents
Prologue: An Odd Alliance 1
Part 1 Afghanistan
Chapter 1 Misfits Go to War 17
Chapter 2 Outpost Kunjak 33
Chapter 3 Ambushed 50
Chapter 4 Walking Wounded 62
Chapter 5 The In-between 70
Chapter 6 Human Triggers 94
Chapter 7 Limbs Lost and Skull Tattoos 106
Part 2 After Afghanistan
Chapter 8 Witnessing War, Living Through Loss 117
Chapter 9 Coming Home 130
Chapter 10 Nosedive 143
Chapter 11 Forward into the Past 155
Chapter 12 The Voice 170
Chapter 13 Media Boot Camp 180
Chapter 14 Coming Undone 196
Part 3 After War
Chapter 15 Home, Again 217
Chapter 16 Echoes of Iraq 232
Chapter 17 Marching Back Through Time 248
Chapter 18 Moving Forward, Sliding Back 257
Chapter 19 No Easy Fix 263
Chapter 20 Another War 272
Chapter 21 Yellow Footprints 290
Chapter 22 No Wars and No Jobs, but Another Tasty Chicken 295
Sources, Resources, And Further Reading 317