Thank You for Your Service

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

Thank You for Your Service, by David Finkel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pp.

When David Finkel’s “The Good Soldiers” came out in 2009, readers and critics alike realized it was a remarkable book. Finkel had followed an American infantry battalion in Iraq as it fought on the front lines of the surge. (Actually, one of his key points was that Iraq didn’t have front lines: the enemy could come from “anywhere ... in any direction.”) The only bad thing you could say about the book – and even this was a stretch – was that it all felt a little familiar. After all, nowadays even pulpy page-turners offer a skeptical view of war, its heroes, and its costs. 

That’s why Finkel’s follow up, Thank You for Your Service, is so incredible – a stunning, moving, subdued masterpiece of a book. Where “The Good Soldiers” focused on a story we know (American troops caught in an impossible situation), “Thank You for Your Service” explores a story we too often neglect (what happens when those troops come home). 

Finkel infuses his writing with the same thrill as one of those page-turners. He sticks to short paragraphs and sentences, avoiding the MFA prose that frequently mars writing about war. He moves quickly from scene to scene, with most of them set in the paramilitary communities that surround places like Kansas’s Fort Riley. (An apartment complex there suffers two straight veteran suicides – “I call it Bloody November,” the super says.) Finkel introduces characters with just enough detail, often drawing on primary sources like some overhead dialogue or a lurching text-message exchange. “Thank You for Your Service” communicates efficiently – it’s less a bugle with tassels than a battered satellite phone.

It’s a good thing Finkel is so compelling since he deals with subjects that are complex and grim. “Nearly two million Americans were sent into the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan,” he writes. “Most of them came back." But those soldiers came back changed. Take Adam Schumann, who, like many of the soldiers here, also showed up in Finkel’s first book. (There, Finkel called him “one of the best soldiers in the battalion.”) 

At first, Schumann loved combat – in his diary, he called it “a front seat to the greatest movie I’ve ever seen in my life." By his third tour, however, he felt so distressed that he had to leave Iraq early and in shame. “He’s still a good guy,” his wife Saskia says. “He’s just a broken good guy."

What does a broken guy look like? “Irritation. Hypervigilance. Anger. A lot of depression,” says an officer in the Army’s Warrior Transition Battalion. Finkel’s subjects battle both PTSD and TBI, or Traumatic Brain Injury, a far worse version of what plagues so many football players today. Add in nightmares, agoraphobia, and leaky memories and it’s easy to see why Adam Schumann finds regular life difficult – and why his family finds it difficult to live with him.

“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."

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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