Thank You for Your Service
By David Finkel
Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
256 pages, $26
By Stephen T. Watson
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Since 2001, in Afghanistan, and 2003, in Iraq, more than 2 million soldiers, Marines, sailors and other military personnel have served in this country’s war on terror. The twin conflicts were fought by volunteers, disconnected from the greater American public.
More than 6,600 of them returned from the war in coffins, but hundreds of thousands more came home physically, or emotionally, wounded.
These damaged veterans have overwhelmed this country’s system of Veterans Affairs medical centers. They suffer from traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, the signature ailments of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, driving a disturbing rise in the suicide rate among active-duty and former members of the military.
In “Thank You for Your Service,” David Finkel catches up with members of the U.S. Army 2-16 Infantry Battalion, after they return to Fort Riley, Kan., following their tour of duty in Iraq. Finkel is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter and MacArthur fellow who has covered conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo.
He embedded with the 2-16 in Iraq, where they engaged in fierce fighting as part of the strategic “surge,” and wrote about this for his critically acclaimed “The Good War.”
Finkel’s first book provided a nuanced, grunt’s-eye narrative of the war, and he returns in “Thank You for Your Service” to record in raw, intimate detail what happened to those soldiers after they’ve left the front lines for the home front.
The soldiers profiled in “Thank You for Your Service” struggle to rebuild relationships with their families, navigate Army bureaucracy, find and keep jobs after leaving the military and cope with physical wounds as well as painful memories of comrades lost to violence.
We hear, too, from the wives and children who lost husbands and fathers in Iraq, or who saw them return fundamentally changed by their deployment. And we are introduced to the largely ineffective efforts by the top brass to prevent suicides among soldiers scarred by their wars.
The title comes from the standard, well-meaning response from members of the public when they meet a veteran, which rings hollow to the members of 2-16.
Finkel during his reporting gained the trust of his subjects, who allowed him access to letters, journals and text messages and welcomed him into their homes, treatment sessions and meetings with superior officers.
We meet Tausolo Aieti, who has a recurring dream of a dead comrade who, while on fire following an attack on their Humvee, asks Aieti, “Why didn’t you save me?”
And Nic DeNinno, another soldier from the 2-16, who takes 43 pills per day “for pain, for anxiety, for depression, for nightmares.”
During his cognitive processing therapy, he tells his wife, Sascha, “I feel like a monster.”
And Amanda Doster, whose husband, Sgt. James Doster, was killed by a hidden improvised explosive device. His last words were “I’m hit,” and Amanda keeps a piece of shrapnel from the fatal bomb.
Finkel for the most part lets the soldiers and their families tell their own stories. His writing is spare, but elegant at times.
When Adam Schumann, a former sergeant in the battalion, waits with a bow and arrow for a deer he is hunting, Finkel describes the temporary steadiness he feels even as his life spins out of control: “There. He is still. He is ready. He feels so alive suddenly. If only the moment could last.”
Or this sentence, so effective in its minimalism: “She turns left on a sort-of street, where the road sign is obscured by a torn shirt someone has wrapped around it.”
Schumann and his wife, Saskia, are the thread that holds “Thank You for Your Service” together.
Schumann is haunted by his war, by the memory of carrying over his back Michael Emory, as blood flowed from a bullet hole in Emory’s head into Schumann’s mouth. Emory survived, left partially paralyzed, but Doster died on a mission on which Schumann didn’t go. Schumann spent an hour afterward using a toothbrush and body wash to scrub the blood from Doster’s body armor.
Adam and Saskia Schumann have unrelenting screaming matches, brought on by Adam’s depression and dysfunctional relationship with his family and Saskia’s frustration with his PTSD and their financial woes.
In one chilling scene, Adam holds a shotgun to his head and yells at Saskia to pull the trigger. Saskia turns around and walks away, saying, “Be a man.”
Schumann doesn’t kill himself, but the number of military suicides eventually reaches about one per day, exceeding the number of combat deaths.
Finkel follows the suicide-prevention program introduced by Gen. Peter Chiarelli, then the Army’s vice chief of staff, centered on a high-level, monthly review of every suicide. It is a grim litany of cases, and practical lessons remain elusive.
The war on terror has lasted one dozen years, and “Thank You for Your Service” makes it clear that, for the veterans of this conflict, the after-war will last far longer.
But Finkel offers hope amid the bleakness, as when the leader of a group therapy program prepares to help Adam Schumann unburden himself of his guilt:
“There’s goodness in everyone. The moment has arrived to let Adam know.”
Stephen T. Watson is a News business reporter.