Thank You for Your Service
(Sarah Crichton Books, 2013)
Thank You for Your Service, David Finkel’s account of returning Afghanistan and Iraq War vets suffering from PTSD, has a surprisingly literary quality. There is the Lady Macbeth-like image of Adam Schumann washing the blood out of his killed commander’s body armor for hours. There is Tausolo Aieti’s Kafka-esque quest for the 39 signatures necessary to prove that he has shown up for orientation at the Fort Hood, Kansas, Warrior Transition Brigade (W.T.B.), one of the army’s new responses to mounting suicide in its ranks. Aieti had
gone first to human resources, where the door was shut and locked and no one answered his knock even though the sign on the door said open … He’d gone to the chaplain who wasn’t there … He’s up to six signatures. He has been given a quilt, a piece of candy, a pen, two brochures, and a certificate for a turkey.
And then there’s the moment of trauma. In every well-known tragedy, there’s the point when the reader dares hope that maybe the inevitable won’t take place: maybe Romeo will realize that Juliet is not dead; maybe Daisy will choose Gatsby on that stuffy afternoon. An alternate ending feels tangible even though the reader knows the story, the words are already written, the end fated. Philip Roth describes this tension best in the Human Stain, when a character reflects on “how accidentally a destiny is made … on the other hand, how accidental fate may seem when things can never turn out other than they do.” It is to this perpetual paradox that Finkel’s soldiers return again and again as they revisit their traumas in nightmares, in therapy, and in their everyday thoughts.
Adam Schumann, an ace at spotting IEDs, was spared from death by a roadside bomb because his sergeant, James Doster (whose body armor Schumann would wash obsessively later that night), switched patrols with him at the last minute. Doster volunteered for the mission so that Schumann could stay on base and use the sergeant’s scheduled video call slot. “None of this shit would’ve happened if you were there,” one of the attack’s survivors says to Schumann. These words haunt him for years. Tausolo Aieti broke his leg after his Humvee hit a roadside bomb. He pulled two soldiers out of the Humvee before it exploded—and only then saw the soldier in the driver’s seat that he had forgotten. In his nightmares now, he sees that soldier, on fire, asking him, “Why didn’t you save me?” These veterans know how the story ends and that is what torments them: what if Schumann had gone on the mission instead of Doster? What if Aieti had seen the driver before the vehicle lit?
But it is never just the veterans affected by the after-war. Finkel does a remarkable job of portraying the “cluster of war wounds” created in the wake of a soldier’s return home, and his narrative structure highlights this interconnectedness. Although Schumann is by and large the book’s protagonist, he, along with Aieti, are the means to chronicling treatment options available to vets, as well as gateways to the traumas of those around them. The book begins with Schumann’s realization that he’s no longer mentally fit for service. He returns home to his wife, Saskia, and their children. Saskia, initially resolved to be a bottomless well of patience, over time takes on her husband’s anxiety. Finkel adeptly shifts focus as the book progresses; those who are initially peripheral later become central. Thus, we’re introduced to the newly widowed Amanda Doster through Schumann. When he returns home, she is there at the Kansas airport, the first person he speaks to: “Can you tell me what happened to my husband?” And so it goes. We are all the center of our own universes—and we simultaneously orbit others, themselves loci of their own worlds. Finkel uses this heartbreaking constellation of pain and frustration to illustrate the myriad ways PTSD affects a community.
And yet, Thank You for Your Service avoids the very easy trap of sentimentalization and emotional manipulation. This quality is its greatest strength. Finkel’s editorializing is fairly light, and he wisely lets his soldiers, their families, and their counselors speak for themselves through interviews, therapy sessions, and journal entries. Both the journal entries and the therapy sessions are windows into the soldiers’ minds, a vulnerability that many deny their own partners for fear of being hated, unforgiven, or considered monsters or cowards. The moments when these veterans reach out to one another—“Do you hate me for helping you out [of the burning Humvee]?” Aieti asks in a letter to one of the men he saved that day—are scenes of profound love and brotherhood. One of the symptoms of PTSD seems to be a recognition of the loss of compassion and humanity, coupled with a sense that they will never return. This tension lends poetry to their therapy and journals despite the horrific nature of the subject matter: their words are sites of recovery.
Thank You for Your Service is ultimately an amalgamation of first person accounts, with, of course, some contextualization. Finkel cannot shy away from moments when Schumann does not behave like the noble wounded soldier, when, after dropping his baby, he leaves home and drives around for a while. In fact that’s part of the point: This is the account of veterans trying to reclaim their identities as the good people they were before and during the war. At a funeral for a W.T.B. suicide victim, one of the eulogists says, “in the most mystified voice, ‘What is there to say at this point except thank you for your service?’” More than anything, the book is the story of how these individuals try to prevent that hollow phrase from becoming their epitaphs. It is a portrait of earnest and desperate striving. It is a life’s work. In a journal entry written on the flight back from Haven Behavioral War Heroes Hospital, veteran Nic DeNinno strikingly describes “the beauty of the sun cresting over the edge of the planet gradually turning the edge of the sky from dark orange to a fading black as night retreats as the chase goes on.” Indeed, it does.