Thank You for Your Service

  • David Finkel
  • Sarah Crichton Books
  • 272 pp.

Home after their deployments, the men of the 2-16 Infantry Battalion struggle with their day-to-day lives in this moving and graphic follow-up to The Good Soldiers.

The U.S. military’s suicide rate has surpassed combat deaths since 2012. And something like 500,000 men who served in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan are subject to bursts of irrational rage, chronic anxiety, ongoing nightmares, suicidal thoughts and depression. They are the victims of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) and traumatic brain injury. Film director John Huston long ago described such men as “casualties of the spirit … forced beyond the limit of human endurance.” In Thank You for Your Service, David Finkel shows us what their lives are like so graphically I had to break off reading every few pages to quiet my pulse.

The searing excellence of the book should come as no surprise. David Finkel, staff writer for The Washington Post and leader of the Post’s reporting team, has won a string of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship. This, his second book, is arguably more disturbing than his first.

Finkel shadowed the men of the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment as they carried out the “surge” in Iraq and recounted their experiences in his riveting The Good Soldiers (2009), rated the best book of the year by seven newspapers and winner of the Helen Bernstein Book Award. Then Finkel followed the men of the 2-16 as they returned home and struggled to resume their lives as husbands, fathers, breadwinners. Their story, told in the sardonically titled Thank You for Your Service, chronicles better than any other writing I’ve come across the struggle to be normal after experiences that scar combatants forever.

My own credentials: I know PTSI intimately. It still lives in me today, 38 years after Vietnam. And I understand that shame and its antecedent, guilt, dominate the darkness of combat trauma. As Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn 2010, What It Is Like to Go to War 2011) summed it up in 2013, “You cannot ask an eighteen-year-old to take a human life, a role that should only be left to the gods, without damaging that kid’s soul.”

Shame is in the bloodstream of Adam Schumann, whose story Finkel tells us in greatest detail.  Schumann fought to save his fellow soldiers, failed and succumbed to the trauma of combat stress. He was sent home while his buddies went on fighting and dying. For Schumann, “it is still the day he headed home. Emory, shot in the head, is still draped across his back, and the blood flowing out of Emory’s head is still rivering into his mouth. Doster, whom he might have loved the most, is being shredded again and again by a roadside bomb on a mission Adam was supposed to have been on, too, and after Doster is declared dead another soldier is saying to him, ‘None of this shit would have happened if you’d been there.’”

Emory was supposed to have died but didn’t. The part of his brain that regulates emotions and impulse control is ruined. His left side is paralyzed. One day he goes haywire and attacks his daughter. His wife leaves him. Unable to find another means, he tries to kill himself by tipping over his wheelchair, stabbing himself with a pencil, and biting through his wrists. Then Schumann finds him, renews the bond between them, helps take care of him. Emory survives, if you can call it survival.

Schumann and his wife, Saskia, fight constantly. One day, after dropping his baby son, he gets into his pickup and drives with a shotgun pointed at his face. After another fight, Saskia finds him holding the shotgun against his forehead. He walks toward her, pushes the butt of the gun into her stomach, tells her to pull the trigger. She wants to. But she doesn’t.

Shame brings isolation. Another survivor, Tausolo Aieti, a Samoan American, can’t escape the memory of the day his Humvee hit a roadside bomb. Despite his broken leg, he pulled one soldier to safety. He tried to save another and couldn’t. The man burned to death. The truth of war, Tausolo thinks to himself, is that it’s always about loving the guy next to you; the truth of the after-war is that you’re alone.

Finkel tells us too about the wives of the men Schumann fought next to. Amanda, Doster’s widow, who rushes to Schumann as he arrives home, crying, “Can you tell me what happened to my husband?” Shawnee Hoffman, whose veteran husband hanged himself while his daughter slept upstairs in her crib. And the long-suffering wives of soldiers so damaged they can’t hold a job. Post-combat travail is not an exclusively male domain.

Finkel underlines the irony of his title in a passage in which Schumann marvels at people who drive around with “We Support the Troops” stickers on their cars. These are people “who have never been to war and will never go to war and say to soldiers, ‘Thank you for your service,’ with their gooey eyes and orthodontist smiles.” Those who haven’t been to war cannot conceive of its horror.

Finkel’s writing is as haunting as his subject. His descriptions are taut and incisive. “Weeds and puddles have the run of the place,” he says of a trailer park. Of the life in one hospital, he says, “Pill, water, swallow, pill, water, swallow.” He speaks of Vietnam vets “who had come home to scrapheap lives.”

But what moved this reader most was Finkel’s use of his subjects’ voices to narrate. “To be a soldier in combat,” Schumann thinks to himself, “was to fall in love constantly, and then Doster was dead.” While still in combat, after Doster and Emory and all the others, Schumann wrote in his diary, “I’ve lost all hope. I feel the end is near for me, very, very near. Darkness is all I see anymore.” And after he’s home, he asks himself why he’s still tasting Doster’s blood. Because he’s weak. Because he’s a pussy. Because he’s a piece of shit.

I wanted the book to end upbeat. It doesn’t. The wounded warriors strive toward healing. Some days they see hope; some days they despair. They take it one day at a time.

Tom Glenn trundled between Vietnam and the U.S. on covert missions for 13 years before being evacuated under fire when Saigon fell. His Vietnam novel Friendly Casualties, a Kindle book, is available on The Baltimore Post-Examiner published his three-part article, “Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon,” in August and September 2013.

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