The title of David Finkel's new book is painfully ironic. A chronicle of the damaged lives of returning Iraqi war veterans, "Thank You for Your Service" reveals on each page the crushing inadequacy of that traditional salutation for our men and women in uniform. It also illustrates the shortcomings of an overburdened support system, as well as the heroic efforts of individual veterans to reintegrate into society and get on with their lives. And it tells us about those who don't make it.
In his previous book, "The Good Soldiers," Finkel, a staff writer for The Washington Post, followed the men of the Army's Second Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment during its 15-month deployment in Iraq in 2007-08. Now he writes about the "after-war" for some of those same soldiers, novelistically weaving together their overlapping personal stories as well as those of their caregivers, spouses, and commanding officers, looking at day-to-day lives as well as larger policy issues.
The stark statistical information alone is an eye-opener. About 2 million Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. And although most of them have more or less adjusted to life after war, Finkel reports that
"20 to 30 percent have come home with post-traumatic stress disorder — PTSD — a mental health condition triggered by some type of terror, or traumatic brain injury — TBI — which occurs when a brain is jolted so violently that it collides with the inside of the skull and causes psychological damage. Depression, anxiety, nightmares, memory problems, personality changes, suicidal thoughts: Every war has its after-war.''
The toll from Iraq and Afghanistan, he tells us, "will be some five hundred thousand mentally wounded American veterans.''
This is all valuable context, but Finkel's real achievement is in his portrayal of individual lives. We see the men, their spouses, and their caregivers, both civilian and military. And we meet the widows of soldiers who have fallen, either in battle or by their own hands.
These are all men who were considered supremely brave, competent soldiers. Until they snapped. There's Nic DeNinno who thought of himself as "a true patriot." Until "he punched his first civilian in the face, and then he pushed his first civilian down some stairs, and now he is back in the United States, crying and saying to his wife, Sascha, 'I feel like a monster.' " There's Tausolo Aieti, from American Samoa, described by his company sergeant as deserving a Bronze or Silver star: "The guy's never failed at anything."
Aieti was on patrol in a Humvee that was blown up by a roadside bomb. With a broken leg, he dragged two of his companions from the wreckage. But his recurring nightmare is of the man he didn't get to: "Harrelson, on fire, asking him, 'Why didn't you save me?' " Now Aieti is incapacitated by violent rage and confusion.
Through scenes rendered with firsthand immediacy, Finkel portrays the texture of family life and friendships among these men and their spouses. One story in particular, that of Adam Schumann, becomes the central thread of the book. Schumann is another supremely competent soldier: "Adam had the sharpest eyes, Adam always found the hidden bombs, everyone relied on Adam."
When Schumann isn't on a patrol where a friend is killed, another soldier tells him, "None of this [expletive] would have happened if you were there." The statement is meant as a compliment, but Schumann is tortured by it.
Schumann's long road to recovery provides one of the book's few notes of solace. He's just one of many who envies those with physical wounds, because at least these soldiers "can see evidence that something is really wrong with them."
One of the catch phrases of PTSD recovery is "lessons learned." But Finkel finds a separate truth in the story of Adam's wife, Saskia, who has dealt with his violent outbursts and a suicide attempt: "Her lesson learned: it's different from the Army's. To her, what happened is the lesson."