‘Every war has its after-war," David Finkel tells us early in Thank You for Your Service. As more than a decade of nonstop war winds down, our nation faces an after-war that will likely last much longer — and in which victory has no clear shape. As the book's ironic title suggests, this is a problem no bumper sticker or platitude can solve, and one on which we must not turn our backs. • Finkel is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and editor at the Washington Post; before that, he was a staffer at the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times). In his powerful 2009 book The Good Soldiers, he told the stories of the men of the 2-16 Infantry Battalion in Baghdad during the surge in 2007 and 2008, putting the reader as close to IED blasts and running gun battles as most of us want to get by putting his own boots on the ground. In Thank You for Your Service, Finkel follows some of those soldiers home. As harrowing and heartbreaking as the first book was, the second may be more so, because it focuses on those for whom the war doesn't end with homecoming — and that is a very large number of soldiers.
Almost 2 million Americans were sent to war in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 12 years, many for multiple deployments, and "the best estimates suggest that anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of them will have psychological issues to contend with," Finkel writes. The most common diagnoses are post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, both of which can lead to anxiety, insomnia, depression and suicidal thoughts.
That's about half a million soldiers and veterans with ongoing conditions that are difficult to treat effectively and can have a devastating impact on their lives. "How to grasp the true size of such a number," Finkel asks, "and all of its implications, especially in a country that paid such scant attention to the wars in the first place?"
Rather than focusing on the numbers or the politics they are entwined with, Finkel tells the stories of the soldiers themselves and the families they come home to (or don't). His reporting is astonishingly intimate yet utterly respectful, taking us inside the hearts and minds of these men and their families.
Anchoring the book, as he did The Good Soldiers, is Adam Schumann, "the great Sergeant Schumann" — and that title isn't ironic. In Baghdad, he was admired and followed, a squared-away guy. Back home, as his wife, Saskia, says, "He's still a good guy. ... He's just a broken good guy."
During his third deployment in Iraq, Schumann began breaking:
The amazing thing was that no one knew. Here was all this stuff going on, pounding heart, panicked breathing, sweating palms, electric eyes, and no one regarded him as anything but the great soldier he'd always been, the one who never complained, who hoisted bleeding soldiers onto his back, who'd suddenly begun insisting on being in the right front seat of the lead Humvee on every mission, not because he wanted to be dead but because that's what selfless leaders would do.
Schumann and Saskia become vivid characters in the book, both of them tough, both devoted to one another, but struggling. His PTSD makes it difficult for him to hold a job, they're chronically broke and trying to raise two kids — at every turn, it seems their marriage might become another casualty. Schumann's experience also brings to life the difficulty of treating PTSD — he bounces through several treatment programs with varying degrees of success, despite the dedication and enthusiasm of the people who try to help him.
Finkel draws us into the stateside lives of other soldiers from the 2-16 as well. There is Tausolo Aieti, who survived an explosion that blew his Humvee into the air. Despite a broken leg, he pulled two other soldiers from the wreck before it exploded. But another, named Harrelson, was still in the driver's seat. Ever since, Aieti has been dreaming of "Harrelson, on fire, asking him, 'Why didn't you save me?' " Sometimes he sees Harrelson, on fire, while he is awake.
And there is Michael Emory, the bleeding soldier Schumann hoisted onto his back after Emory was shot in the head, carrying him down several flights of stairs too narrow for a litter. Schumann makes a journey to visit Emory, whose physical wounds are grievous. But the bullet also "ruined the part of his brain that regulates such things as emotions and impulse control." At one point, partly paralyzed, he was so hopeless he tried to kill himself by biting his wrists.
Some soldiers, of course, never came home, and Finkel introduces us to the widow of one of them, Amanda Doster. Thanks to what she calls "oops money" from the government, she and her daughters don't face the money problems of many of the other vets, but she is paralyzed by her husband's death (another IED), carrying a box of his ashes with her for months, on holiday visits and into storm shelters.
Finkel also takes us to the Pentagon, to the meetings presided over by Gen. Peter Chiarelli, U.S. Army vice chief of staff. He's tasked with trying to discover reasons and solutions for the growing number of suicides in the military, and he is clearly a man who takes the task seriously. Yet "explanations for these things remained as elusive as patterns, and patterns remained as elusive as remedies."
Thank You for Your Service does not offer those remedies either, but what it does is give the after-war human faces that readers will not soon forget. And seeing those human faces reminds us we must not turn away from the men and women we sent to war — and that a "thank you" may not be enough.
One of those soldiers Finkel tells us about was "blown up in Iraq" and lost an eye, his hearing and sense of smell, parts of his face and some of his brain. His teenage daughter tells her mother she wants to dye her hair blue. Why? "So when we go to Walmart, people will stare at me instead of Daddy."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.