In 2007, author David Finkel, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist for The Washington Post, spent several months as an embedded reporter with the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, (also known as the "2-16 Rangers"), as they deployed to Baghdad during the Iraq War. His experiences and observations while there became the basis for the book, The Good Soldiers. Finkel's latest, Thank You For Your Service, follows the lives of several soldiers he met while in Iraq as they return home bearing the scars they incurred both visible and invisible during the war. The male soldiers featured here are a subset of the ones Finkel covered in his earlier book.
He explores in depth the effects Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TMI) have had on the soldiers and their families, and the high rate of suicide among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans (23 per 100,000 active duty soldiers in 2011). According to the Pentagon, the military rate of 18.5 suicides per 100,000 service members in 2009 was up from 10.3 suicides per 100,000 in 2002 an 80 percent increase. A comparable civilian suicide rate rose by about 15 percent in the same period.
Finkel's focus becomes clear early in the book:
Nearly two million Americans were sent into the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of them came home okay and have moved forward into untroubled lives, but the best estimates suggest that anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of them will have psychological issues to contend with chronic anxiety, ongoing nightmares, suicidal thoughts, varying degrees of depression Every war has its after-war, its consequences and reminders, and the consequences and reminders of Iraq and Afghanistan will be some five hundred thousand mentally wounded veterans, a number significant enough to affect American social policy, medical care, even the broader economy, for decades.
He goes on to describe how despite billions of dollars being spent on research to help these men, very little progress has been made; there are no answers as to why some are affected and others aren't, and why the suicide rate continues to rise. The author interviews solders enrolled in various programs across the country (such as the VA-administered PTSD inpatient clinic in Topeka, Kansas; Haven Behavioral War Heroes Hospital in Pueblo, Colorado; the Fort Riley Warrior Transition Battalion in Fort Riley, Kansas; and Pathway Home, a privately funded facility in California), as well as the people who administer those programs, highlighting the successes, failures and frustrations of all involved.
The author chooses to expand on his subject by concentrating on a handful of soldiers experiencing PTSD and/or TMI. These men describe their feelings of "brokenness" after their return, their inability to reconnect with their families and to go on with their lives. It says a lot for Finkel's skill as a journalist that he is able to elicit such candor from soldiers who were raised in a testosterone-driven culture that doesn't value talking about one's emotions.
He is physically unmarked, so how can he be injured, one soldier asks himself as he looks in the mirror. Why does he get angry? Why does he forget things? Why is he jittery? Why can't he stay awake, even after twelve hours of sleep?...Because he's weak. Because he's a pussy. Because he's a piece of shit.
The soldiers are frank about their disappointment with themselves and their inability to be the person they want to be, going so far as to describe their rage with others and with themselves, including their near-suicides.
The one thing that makes this account a standout is Finkel's inclusion of the soldiers' wives point of view. Too often, I think, books about war and their aftereffects neglect the impact the conflict has on those left behind. The author paints a complex picture of the various women he interviews women who love their husbands and understand their injuries, but at the same time are at a loss as to how to cope with these men's anger, grief and suicidal tendencies, while trying to manage their own frustrations and resentments. They also must shoulder the brunt of the financial burden, since most of these men are unemployable or must abandon jobs to seek treatment. One woman confesses, "My mood changes every day. One day, it's: He's really hurting. The next is: Stop this. Get over it. Get your ass up." Elsewhere, this same wife wonders, "How much can you pity a person who cannot help himself?" Another woman copes by repeatedly telling herself, "Nothing will get better...Nothing will be as it was before. Nothing will be the way I want it to be. So I have to come up with reasonable expectations of what can be." And, unlike their husbands, these women have little to no support, often relying on friends, relatives and each other to make it through the day.
Needless to say, Thank You For Your Service is not a happy book. There's no indication the men and women we meet will ultimately be okay. Finkel maintains his objective distance as a professional journalist this isn't a polemic against war or the way the United States cares for its veterans — but there really isn't much good news to report in this ongoing story. It is, however, a very important book that helps readers understand the human cost of war, and the ongoing problems our returning soldiers and their families face. It is highly recommended for anyone seeking to learn more about the lasting impacts of modern warfare.
This review was originally published in October 2013, and has been updated for the September 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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