Finkel’s accounts of PTSD, brain trauma, and psychological disorders in homeward soldiers shows the lasting effects of war.
Nonfiction | Current Affairs | Political Science
Perfectbound Trade Paperback
Also available in eBook Formats
Review Copy: Paperback
Movie Tie-In Edition
New York, New York, USA
There’s plenty of firsthand accounts of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, hundreds of stories told through documentaries, memoirs, and fiction. Most of these stories deal with the horrors of war or the political reasons behind it, but they often have one thing in common: they take place during the war, not after. Even if the psychological struggles are conveyed and portrayed accurately and with great emotional effect, they often disregard the second battlefield, the home front.
Next to combat, adjusting to civilian life is one of the hardest parts of being a soldier. Nothing is the same, but your loved ones expect you to be the same person you were before you shipped out. We tend to think of the visible wounds that soldiers carry, the battle scars, the marks of a warrior instead of thinking how a war scars a person’s mind. There is a misconception that if they come back untarnished, they’re fine. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In Thank You for Your Service, David Finkel explores the lives of veterans suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury).
Getting mental healthcare for veterans has been a struggle, as unlike lost limbs, burns, and broken bones, the victim may appear to be fine. There is a stigma attached to admitting that you are struggling. No matter what’s going on, soldiers are expected to carry on, but for some, getting through normal mundane tasks is a pain. Soldiers hold the pain in and eventually burst, becoming abusive to their partners, forgetting things that were told to them a minute ago, and experiencing anger issues and suicidal thoughts. Many end their lives as a result.
For example, there is the story on which Finkel places the most focus, that of Adam Schumann, who at the start of the book is taken away in a helicopter with a red cross on it, the vehicle for the injured and dead. Problem is, he’s neither. He’s injured deep within his mind, a place no one can see, unless he talks about it, and talking about it hurts the most. He might be tough as nails on the outside, but on the inside he’s falling apart. Finkel doesn’t hold back on the facts. He gives them to us straight and honest, the way reporting is meant to be. The first line of chapter one begins,
Two years later: Adam drops the baby.
The baby was four days old at the time.
Finkel’s narration offers us a completely objective fly-on-the-wall view. He shares with us what the soldiers say, experience, and feel with no analysis or opinion, just the harsh reality of families who have been broken apart by the war. His writing style is quick, minimal, and easy to read. At times it can be repetitive and abrupt, but the dialogue is familiar, like listening to a recording or watching a movie. We don’t need to know what they looked like or what their actions were. Their words are enough. And because it’s so real, it often feels unsettlingly familiar, especially to those who have ever been in a long-term relationship with someone who is struggling with mental illness, especially when it comes to Adam and his wife, Saskia, whose patience wears away as time goes on:
“The appointment’s not till tomorrow,” he says to Saskia.
She shoots him a look, starts to say something, doesn’t.
So he says it for her.
“Fuck,” he says. “Fuck.”
At times such exchanges can get bleak and predictable, but this brings us into the minds of the characters, making us an active participant in reading. Like a slow, sad movie, we must choose whether or not to turn it off, or brave the storm further. Finkel’s writing harkens back to perhaps the most famous war correspondent, Ernest Hemingway, who believed in the power of less and writing with as few words as possible, terse and stern like many of the veterans depicted in the book. Fact or fiction, the same principle applies. Sometimes the blank space provides more than the words, and sometimes a few words are better than a dozen.
The book has been adapted into a movie of the same title, starring Miles Teller and Amy Schumer. The tight, constrained and brief nature of the prose will lend itself well to the screen. Actors do well with blank space. Prose will always be limited when it comes to emotion and dialogue, because descriptions of expressions and the way people say things will never come close to the experience of seeing an actor portray them. The trailer makes the story look a little too thrilling, perhaps too action-packed and fast-paced, whereas the book conjures up a slower visual, bleak and depressing. Naturally, the comments section on YouTube is filled with complaints that it looks like propaganda, when the book doesn’t even come close to being such. If anything, it’s closer to Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” a poem that is largely interpreted as anti-war, or at least against the glorification of war that is used to recruit new soldiers.
The title suggests anger at coming home and being greeted with nothing but that silly sentence. What else do they get in return for risking their lives and mental stability? In the case of men like Adam Schumann, they get to tell their stories. But if there’s anything you learn upon finishing Thank You for Your Service, it’s that in the end, most veterans won’t say a word about the horrific things they experienced, and they don’t always want much thanks for their experiences, either.