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‘Thank You For Your Service’: the struggle for peace, at home
David Finkel’s superbly reported nonfiction book “Thank You For Your Service,” the follow-up to his “The Good Soldiers,” follows an infantry battalion from Fort Riley, Kansas as they return from Iraq. They and their families struggle to find peace at home.
Special to The Seattle Times
‘Thank You for Your Service’
by David Finkel
Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pp., $26
This book’s title is ironic. But sincere thanks are also in order.
Thank you to David Finkel, for sticking with a story.
In 2009, Finkel, a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, came out with “The Good Soldiers,” a book chronicling the combat experiences of the 2-16, an infantry battalion from Fort Riley, Kan., fighting in East Baghdad.
Now, four years later, Finkel chronicles what he calls the “after-war,” taking us along as soldiers from the same battalion struggle to find peace at home.
They struggle with depression and anxiety and nightmares. They struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, better known as PTSD and TBI. They struggle to reconnect with their families and their previous selves. And in an after-war as dangerous as this, with suicides outpacing combat deaths, they struggle to stay alive.
Their families struggle, too — to understand and cope, or to grieve and move on.
With each tale of struggle captured by Finkel in excruciating, heart-rending detail, the multiplier is 500,000. That’s the estimate of how many American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will battle with mental wounds, the kind that can devastate families and burden our health-care and social-service systems for decades to come.
Finkel’s book is, in every sense, exceptional — exceptional for its commitment, its compassion and its execution. It is public service, a book built on extraordinary access, with reporting so relentless and writing so fine and spare that our understanding of war’s enduring cost is forever changed.
Thank you to the soldiers and their families who allowed Finkel to embed a second time, at home. Going to war takes a certain kind of courage. Letting a reporter in — to read your journal, to watch you despair, to hear you scream — takes another.
There’s Amanda Doster, whose husband died in Iraq. At a ceremony for the fallen, she’s forced to endure Toby Keith’s “American Soldier” playing in the background while some stranger says, “Congratulations.” She carries her husband’s ashes around, frustrating friends at her “inability to stop being so relentlessly heartbroken.” She can only grieve. She cannot move on.
There’s 43-pills-a-day Nic DeNinno, who winds up in a psychiatric facility with the improbable name of Haven Behavioral War Heroes Hospital, where, in group therapy, he and others recount the awful things they saw, did and felt. “What were we thinking?” DeNinno asks the other soldiers.
And there’s Sgt. Adam Schumann and his wife, Saskia, trying to keep their family together as Schumann — revered in Iraq, a good soldier, true — tries to keep from firing a shotgun into his skull. “He’s still a good guy,” Saskia says. “He’s just a broken good guy.”
Thank you, too, to the Army, for letting Finkel into the Pentagon, into a conference room where, each month, generals gather to review the latest suicides, “a brutal, depressing meeting” where officers search for lessons learned from each life lost.
That the Army is searching is something. But in “Thank You for Your Service,” there are lessons for us all. Finkel offers no easy answers for how we deal with all these broken soldiers, but when he writes that our country “paid such scant attention to the wars in the first place,” one answer is: Let’s pay more attention now.
Ken Armstrong: firstname.lastname@example.org.