To his 2006 Pulitzer Prize, Washington Post writer David Finkel last year added a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. In between he reported and wrote a brilliant book about the Iraq War called “The Good Soldiers.”
A sad, bitter, eloquent chronicle of 12 months embedded with soldiers in “a sorry, bomb-filled” Baghdad neighborhood called Kamaliyah, it now has an equally fine sequel in “Thank You for Your Service.”
Finkel follows some of the troops from the 2-16 Infantry Battalion home to the U.S., where relatives, therapists and Washington can barely cope with these warriors’ wounds, many of them psychological. Their deployment, part of George Bush’s “surge,” exposed them to frequent explosive devices designed to cruelly maim and kill or leave the brain damaged by shock waves and terror.
“And yet day after day they would go out anyway, which eventually came to be what the war was about,” Finkel writes. “Not winning. Not losing. Nothing so grand. Just trying until it was time to go home and discovering that life after the war turned on trying again.”
Cases of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and TBI (traumatic brain injury) went to the WTU (Warrior Transition Unit) until the large numbers forced a label change to WTB (B for battalion). There’s no abbreviation for suicide.
“Two million Americans were sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Finkel writes. “Home now, most of them describe themselves as physically and mentally healthy.” The less fortunate amount to “500,000 mentally wounded American veterans.”
One soldier takes 43 pills a day for pain, anxiety, depression and nightmares. These might include Zoloft, Trazodone, Lunesta, Abilify, Concerta (and you might recognize them from TV ads with lists of lousy side effects).
In a rare light moment a therapist asks if the soldier is taking Concerta, for attention deficit and memory. “‘Yes,’ he says sheepishly. ‘I forgot to bring it.’”
Another break in the book’s grimness comes with the menu planning for a dinner given by General Peter Chiarelli, U.S. Army vice chief of staff, who led efforts to reduce suicide by “getting every single person in official Washington to pay attention to soldier mental health issues.” (Chiarelli continues to work on mental illness as head of One Mind for Research.)
The dinner’s theme was to be suicide; it’s canceled when key guests back out. After Chiarelli retires, Finkel writes, “the number of suicides will keep rising until it is exceeding the number of combat deaths and averaging almost one a day.”
Finkel seems to have embedded with a few families, given the depth and detail of his writing. Adam Schumann is 28 as the book starts, a veteran of three tours who returns mentally broken from the third to a wife and two children. He was described “as one of the best soldiers in the battalion” and one of the older ones, given the 2-16’s average age of 19.
Schumann’s battle against mental damage, bureaucracy, varieties of therapy, financial pressures and family demands is summed up simply: “Out of one war into another.”
Finkel also reveals the burdens and pain borne by the soldiers’ wives, who endure months and years of moods, threats, violence and seemingly pointless therapy. Schumann’s wife can’t believe she has to hold the family together in Kansas while Adam flies off for months to “a beautiful, tranquil residential environment in the Napa Valley.”
It’s a place called the Pathway Home, started by a man working with Vietnam vets whose childhood was scarred by a returning soldier: “When Fred Gusman was little, his father came home from World War II and began beating him with a belt.”
For Schumann, Pathway seems to work. It’s unclear for how long, but I took heart, in a book that can tear that organ to pieces, from the last of Finkel’s generally bleak black-and-white photos.
The caption “Home” sits under a small front lawn and a small frame house. It’s what soldiers dream of until the nightmares deploy, and it’s where the Schumanns are headed from Napa, to try again to win the other war.
(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for the story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.