Former Marine Discusses War and Journalism
Issue   |   Tue, 02/20/2018 - 19:29
Photo Courtesy of Alura Chung-Mehdi '19
The college hosted former Marine and reporter Thomas Brennan for a conversation with journalist Kevin Cullen about Brennan’s new book and the trials of war.

The college hosted a conversation between Marine Corps veteran and investigative reporter Thomas Brennan and Boston Globe reporter Kevin Cullen on Feb. 15 in Stirn Auditorium.

Dean of Faculty Catherine Epstein, host of the event, introduced Brennan and Cullen.

Brennan is a retired Marine Corps sergeant who served in Iraq during the Battle of Fallujah and was also a squad leader with the First Battalion, Eighth Marines in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. He was medically retired in 2012 and is a member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. After his retirement, he turned toward journalism, and in 2016, he founded The War Horse, a nonprofit investigative newsroom focused on the Department of Defense and veterans' issues. He spoke at Amherst about his new book, “Shooting Ghosts,” which he co-authored with war photographer Finbarr O’Reilly.

Cullen has written for The Boston Globe since 1985 and has been part of the Spotlight Team, the Globe’s group of investigative journalists, several time in his career. In 1988, along with other journalists, he helped uncover that mobster James “Whitey” Bulger was an FBI agent. Cullen was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for his commentary on the Boston Marathon bombings in 2014.

Brennan and Cullen were invited to Amherst College by the President’s Office. Events Assistant Davis Bannister said that Cullen Murphy, chairman of the Board of Trustees, helped bring the two to campus. Murphy worked with Brennan during his time as editor-at-large of Vanity Fair.

The talk was preceded by a short video produced by Vanity Fair in partnership with The War Horse, which detailed the recovery process of Marine veteran Kyle Carpenter after he lost an eye and most of his teeth and shattered his jaw and right arm when he threw himself on a grenade, saving a fellow Marine in Afghanistan. Carpenter received a Medal of Honor for his service and sacrifice.

Cullen started the talk by welcoming the audience, thanking the veterans in the audience for their service and presence and asking Brennan to describe how he joined the Marine Corps.

Brennan said that after graduating from high school, he joined the Marine Corps in 2003 because he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life — he wanted to continue his education but lacked the financial means.

“The first four months of my deployment were very anticlimactic,” he said. “And then, Fallujah happened.” He remembers being dropped into the city on Nov. 10, 2004, the Marine Corps’ birthday, with “Marines’ Hymn” playing in the background.

Fallujah was “pretty bad,” Brennan said. He was 19 at the time, and working as an infantry assaultman meant that his “speciality was demolitions and rockets. So I made big holes in stuff that normally didn’t have holes in it before.”
Cullen then asked how Brennan met his co-author for his new book.

Brennan met O’Reilly after being deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 and sent to a different base in Kunjak, where he saw “this gaunt man sitting in the corner on this cot.” Brennan was initially skeptical of the man, O’Reilly, after finding out he was a photojournalist from Reuters. “At that point, I definitely thought that war and journalism didn’t mix,” Brennan said.

O’Reilly quickly earned Brennan’s trust — the next day, O’Reilly was with the squad when they were pinned down in an alleyway, under fire from two insurgents. “Being under fire with another person — you quickly bond with those people when there’s a risk you’re going to have your brains splattered across the wall,” Brennan said.

On Nov. 1, 2010, Brennan’s squad was advancing into Nabu Agha with the intention of setting up an Afghan base in the city when an Afghan National Police officer fired a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) towards Brennan. He lost consciousness and had to be medically evacuated. Following the blast, Brennan spent 15 days in a field hospital. Doctors cleared him for duty and Brennan was sent back into combat, but he knew something was wrong. He was having trouble remembering things and would frequently get migraines.

These problems continued throughout the rest of his deployment and his return home. “When I started coming home, I just wanted to isolate [myself] completely,” Brennan said.

“Every little thing that I couldn’t remember would just send my anger through the roof, and I just became really really isolated. I knew I wasn’t mentally the same Marine that I was before. I didn’t think that I was broken, but I knew I was cracking and beginning to fall apart.”

Brennan recounted the time he broke down after seeing an amputee in a diner. “I lost it, my mind, and I was begging my wife in my truck that night — ‘I just want a gun, help me find a gun, I just want to kill myself,’” he said.

Some of Brennan’s peers were supportive when he sought help, but others were not. Brennan felt abandoned at a time when he “needed the support of [his] peers more than ever. It was a very demoralizing experience.”

Cullen commented that Brennan’s experience was “par for the course for the military.”

“They tell you to get help, but [if you do] you’re diminished as a soldier,” Cullen said. “They tell you to be a whistleblower for wrong things and then if you are a whistleblower, you’re punished for it — there’s always an asterisk next to your name.”

The conversation moved from Brennan’s injury to his transition from a Marine to a journalist. Brennan started writing in a notebook that a social worker had given him during therapy as a way to express his feelings. Writing in the notebook, Brennan said, gave him a “voice and the ability to explain what [he] was going through.”

The transition wasn’t always smooth, however. After starting The War Horse, Brennan felt at times like he was “violating the brotherhood and sisterhood of being in the military.”

“A lot of people said I was airing dirty laundry that didn’t need to get aired,” he added. “It caused me to really look really hard at myself and figure out what purpose I wanted to pursue.”

Amid the doubts, Brennan received a call one day from a Marine who had been contemplating suicide. The Marine told Brennan that he had decided to live after reading Brennan’s article, in which he talked about his own suicide attempt.

“Knowing on a truly micro level, that I made an impact for a single human being — that was enough,” Brennan said. “I know I’m on this course for the long haul.”

Brennan talked about how he got the inspiration to start The War Horse while he was in graduate school. “It wasn’t that military newsrooms were doing it wrong, I just thought that military newsrooms could do it better,” Brennan said.

Compared to typical news reports, which are “always about the next battle,” the goal of The War Horse is to tell veterans’ stories. “The veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan — we’re not old news,” he said. “I mean, [the war] is still going on.”

“I want to use The War Horse as a means to restore faith in the news … and in military and veteran affairs,” he added.
The conversation ended with Brennan talking about how his book. “Shooting Ghosts” was an attempt to find closure for his time in the Marine Corps and a way to connect with fellow veterans.

“That was me, taking this jumbled mess of memories and letters and feelings and putting it all in one organized place,” he said. “For me, the book is a success if one person connects with the deepest, darkest stuff I put in there.”

The two journalists then participated in a Q&A session, during which Brennan talked about the nature of traumatic brain injuries and how The War Horse got its name. A veteran of the Vietnam War in the audience also shared his story.

Epstein, in an interview after the event, said the college is “very interested in bringing to students other viewpoints, other perspectives, other experiences than the ones that they’ve usually had.”

In a separate interview, Cullen elaborated on his relationship with Brennan and his personal motivation for participating in talks such as the conversation hosted at Amherst.

“Tom always says I helped him get in the business, and I mean, he’s paying it back, he’s paying it forward … and I love helping [veterans] because I think we owe them so much, especially the ones who have done multiple tours,” Cullen said.

“Timmy [Cullen’s nephew] will never be recorded in the official death toll in Afghanistan and Iraq but [he] was wounded in Iraq and he died as a result of his wounds, and it’s something that our family lives with every day,” Cullen added. “When I think about all the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, Afghan people who have suffered through these wars for the last decade and a half, that’s why it was important for us to come here tonight and talk about it.”