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Thank You for Your Service

Washington Post journalist David Finkel focuses on an often-neglected narrative: what happens when soldiers return home.

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“Thank You for Your Service” takes us to a numbing roundtable where four-star generals scrutinize this month’s military suicides, which occur at a rate nearing one per day. It shows a war widow on the day she finally moves out of the house she’d shared with her husband. It describes the routine one forgetful soldier must follow simply to make it to work – clothes laid out the night before, keys and wallet set by the microwave. It describes another soldier who takes 43 pills a day. It lingers over the daughter of a man whose face has been ground up by shrapnel. The girl begs to dye her hair blue. “We’re not trash,” the mother says, then asks, “Why?” “So when we go to Walmart,” the daughter replies, “people will stare at me and not Daddy."

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For these people, the war makes everything – bills, spats, bedwetting kids—matter both less and more. The soldiers and their families aren’t always sympathetic. (Many seem petty, materialistic, and self-destructive.) But it also becomes clear that America is asking some of its most disadvantaged citizens – citizens without supportive families or solid mentors or even the ability to make a family budget – to assume the full burden of what Finkel calls “the after-war.” We all know, in the post-draft era, that more and more soldiers hail from poor and rural places. Finkel reminds us of an important corollary: More and more troubled veterans will come from (and return to) those places, as well. 

If there’s one bad thing to say about “Thank You For Your Service” – and it too is a stretch – it’s that Finkel doesn’t present any major characters who’ve discovered a way to adjust. Even one veteran achieving something like balance would help humanize the others, would create a baseline against which they might seem even more affecting.

But Finkel wants to startle his readers. In another one of his vivid scenes, a group of fidgety soldiers works with their therapist. “I had a hard drive that I destroyed,” one veteran says, “[pictures of] us hanging out with dead bodies. At the time, I mean we were rockin’ and rollin’, we were mean mean killing machines. Now I look back and I’m like, God, what were we doing?” The therapist brings up the idea of habituation – that in Iraq the soldiers became habituated to violence and that now, back home, they need to habituate themselves to their lingering guilt.

It’s an idea that applies to the rest of us, as well. We’ve become habituated to the horrors of war, but we need to think deeply about the horrors that follow. A book like “Thank You for Your Service” will help, but it’s only a start. We need to confront these issues, but then we need to confront them again – much like the soldiers in that meeting, soldiers who, in Finkel’s description, keep grieving and talking and working: “Laughter. Tears. Smoke break."

Craig Fehrman is a Monitor contributor.

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