"Every war has its after-war, and so it is with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have created some 500,000 mentally wounded American veterans," writes David Finkel in "Thank You for Your Service," which examines the lives of these soldiers after they leave the battlefield.
Finkel, a reporter for The Washington Post, embedded with the soldiers of the US 2-16 Infantry Battalion in Baghdad during the 15-month surge between 2007-2008 to write his acclaimed book "The Good Soldiers."
"Thank You for Your Service" is something of a sequel to "The Good Soldiers" as Finkel shadows many of the same men when they return home.
One of the main figures in the book is Sgt. Adam Schumann, who also appears in "The Good Soldiers." Schumann is described as one of the battalion's best. During his three deployments he saved countless lives, even carried bleeding soldiers on his back to safety. Later, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, he is sent home. A more personal battle begins as he struggles to adjust to life with his wife and children while suffering from depression, anger-control issues, panic attacks, suicidal impulses and oppressive feelings of survivor's guilt.
Schumann's wife, Saskia, admits she counts his pills after they have a fight to make sure he doesn't overdose. While she is confused and often angry herself, she doesn't give up, telling Finkel, "He's still a good guy. He's just a broken good guy."
Schumann isn't alone. Other soldiers face similar issues and worse as they return from combat emotionally battered and unequipped for the transition to civilian life. Soldier Tausolo Aieti returns home after his Humvee is hit by a bomb. Even with a concussion and a broken leg, Aieti manages to save two other soldiers from the burning vehicle. Despite everyone telling him he's a hero, Aieti spends his days nearly crippled with guilt and nightmares about the one soldier he was unable to rescue.
Aieti's wife, Theresa, talks about the pills he takes to sleep and other pills for pain or anxiety. For a while, he was also drinking. "He began to drink so much vodka that his skin smelled of it, and then he started mentioning suicide," she says.
Finkel meets wives whose previously gentle husbands are now violent and abusive. Their homes show telltale signs of fists punched through walls or chairs broken in a rage. Often, the families fall apart and the soldiers are left alone to grapple with their demons. Depressingly, these men are actually doing better than some of their peers. Some soldiers who survive the war don't survive the return home. Finkel interviews shattered widows to chronicle these post-facto casualties as well.
Suicide rates in the military hit a record high in 2012, writes Finkel, and last year, 349 service members committed suicide, a 15 percent jump from the previous year. He points out that 20 to 30 percent of the more than 2 million U.S. soldiers sent to Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with either PTSD or traumatic brain injury.
It can be difficult to put a human face on numbers and statistics, but this small and somber book does it beautifully. Finkel asks readers to envision these wounded soldiers as points of light on a map of America. He explains, "The sight would be of a country glowing from coast to coast." Finkel adds, "Another way would be to imagine them one at a time," which is what his book helps us do.
Finkel's writing is intimate and compassionate. I marvel at the honesty and generosity of the soldiers and families as they open their homes and reveal their broken lives to the author.
"Thank You for Your Service" is not an easy book to read, but with its honest and agonizingly beautiful stories, it is well worth the effort.
Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.