Sgt Brennan's story

Sgt Brennan's story


Sgt. Thomas James Brennan of Randolph, MA., from the First Battallion Eighth Marines Alpha Company, smokes a cigarette in his bunk surrounded by photographs of his wife Melinda and daughter Madison.

"It was difficult taking photos knowing Sergeant Brennan was in pain, while his squad was still under fire and far from safety"
Finbarr O’Reilly, Reuters Photographer

Sergeant Brennan and I had a routine. Every morning he would make a pot of Starbucks coffee and lend me his canteen mug to drink from. And I would use my laptop to convert his digital movies into a format he can view on his iPod.

Occasionally, I used my satellite phone to send his wife an e-mail or a photograph. It’s part of life out here. The conversation often revolved around how much he misses his wife, Melinda, and their two-year-old daughter.

I was already at the camp when he and his squad rolled in from another outpost. The first thing Sergeant Brennan did, even before laying his sleeping bag on his camp cot, was to pull out a collage of his daughter’s paintings and family photos to hang on the mud wall above his bunk.

Sergeant Brennan constantly tries to ease the hardships for his team, giving them fresh socks from his own supply or chivvying them along when they are down. He is a firm — but fair — leader of young men at war.

But that didn’t make it any easier to photograph him after a rocket-propelled grenade fired by an Afghan policeman patrolling with the Marines accidentally hit a power line and exploded near the sergeant, briefly knocking him unconscious during an intense firefight and giving him a concussion.

As he staggered back into the relative safety of a mud-walled compound; dizzy, disoriented and vomiting I snapped a few frames and gave him some water. I pulled a pair of dark sunglasses out of his pack because the bright sunlight was hurting his eyes. Then I moved him into the shade while a medic was attending to three other Marines who also sustained concussions from explosions.

It was difficult taking photos knowing Sergeant Brennan was in pain, while his squad was still under fire and far from safety. But that’s what I was there to do: capture the reality of what was unfolding in the heat of battle. I drew the line at photographing him vomiting, as I didn’t think that would have added anything to the story-telling. I was more interested in trying to capture the concern among his squad mates for his well-being.

Just before the R.P.G. explosion, Sergeant Brennan had called out from his position that he had identified a possible pressure-plate bomb. When the grenade exploded, those of us just out of sight around the corner feared the worst. We thought he had detonated an I.E.D. and possibly been killed along with other nearby Marines. So in the scheme of things, a concussion was a favorable outcome.

His concussion was graded as level three and he was airlifted by helicopter to a larger base. He expressed my own thoughts when he said afterward: “At least we’re all still alive. If this is as bad as it gets, that’s fine.”

I exchanged e-mails with Sergeant Brennan once I was back home. Here is some of what he wrote:

“I am doing much better. I’ll be here for seven days since it’s my first blast injury. I’m with a bunch of Marines and I’ve got a mattress to lie on, so it’s nice. My head feels lighter and my eyes don’t hurt too much anymore. I don’t remember the explosion. I just remember telling Chun to get down and then seeing SSgt Gonzalez running towards Chun and I, screaming my name once the smoke was clearing.

I really didn’t feel all the pressure in my head and eyes until I had time to calm down in the hospital. That’s when everything started to hurt and when I started to talk funny. Or so they say. I guess it was the adrenaline that kept me going. It just feels like I shouldn’t be here right now. I need to be out there with my guys.”

. Musa Qala, Afghanistan. Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly

Sgt. Brennan poses for a portrait at Musa Qala in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province. Brennan suffered a concussion from a rocket propelled grenade explosion during a battle against Taliban insurgents. He returned to active duty. Audio by Finbarr O'Reilly, Reuters Photographer, 14 NOV 2010.

. Nabuk, Afghanistan. Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly

Sgt. Brennan (2nd left) shouts to his comrades to keep out of the line of fire from Taliban insurgents during a firefight in the town of Nabuk in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province.

. Nabuk, Afghanistan. Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly

HN. Donald Howard, 2nd right, checks on his comrades after rocket propelled grenades exploded near their positions during a battle against Taliban insurgents. Left to right, Alpha Company 1st Battalion 8th Marines Sgt. Thomas James Brennan, LCpl. James Roche, LCpl. John Chun and LCpl. James Edward Orr.

. Nabuk, Afghanistan. Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly

Sgt. Brennan recovers from concussion after a rocket propelled grenade exploded near his position during a battle against Taliban insurgents.