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Thank You for Your Service

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A FINALIST FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZE, THE DAYTON LITERARY PEACE PRIZE, AND THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY HELEN BERNSTEIN AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM

ONE OF TEN FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2013 BY MICHIKO KAKUTANI (THE NEW YORK TIMES) AND AWASHINGTON POSTTOP TEN BOOK OF THE YEAR

NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BYTHE WASHINGTON ...

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Overview

A FINALIST FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZE, THE DAYTON LITERARY PEACE PRIZE, AND THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY HELEN BERNSTEIN AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM

ONE OF TEN FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2013 BY MICHIKO KAKUTANI (THE NEW YORK TIMES) AND AWASHINGTON POSTTOP TEN BOOK OF THE YEAR

NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BYTHE WASHINGTON POST, USA TODAY, THE ECONOMIST, THE SEATTLE TIMES,ANDMINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE

NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEWNOTABLE BOOK OF THE YEAR

No journalist has reckoned with the psychology of war as intimately as David Finkel. In The Good Soldiers, his bestselling account from the front lines of Baghdad, Finkel embedded with the men of the 2-16 Infantry Battalion as they carried out the infamous “surge,” a grueling fifteen-month tour that changed them all forever.

In Thank You for Your Service, Finkel follows many of those same men as they return home and struggle to reintegrate—both into their family lives and into American society at large. He is with them in their most intimate, painful, and hopeful moments as they try to recover, and in doing so, he creates an indelible, essential portrait of what life after war is like—not just for these soldiers, but for their wives, widows, children, and friends, and for the professionals who are truly trying, and to a great degree failing, to undo the damage that has been done. Thank You for Your Service is an act of understanding, and it offers a more complete picture than we have ever had of two essential questions: When we ask young men and women to go to war, what are we asking of them? And when they return, what are we thanking them for?

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

In 2007 and 2008, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter David Finkel traveled with 800 U.S. Army soldiers during the Iraqi Surge. That immersion became the basis for his The Good Soldier, described by the New York Times as "ferociously reported, darkly humorous and spellbinding book." In this book, he picks up the story, not only of the now deactivated members of the battalion he covered, but also of other returning battle-scarred GIs and their families. Like its deeply ironic title, Thank You for Your Service accents the disparity between the life-endangering combat commitment of these brave men and women and their intense difficulties reintegrating into "normal" American life. One of the most powerful books of 2013.

The New York Times Book Review - Elizabeth D. Samet
As he did in The Good Soldiers, Finkel absents himself from the narrative, immersing the reader in the quotidian life of soldiers and their families. Thank You for Your Service is elegantly reported, free of the entanglements of crusading self-aggrandizement on the one hand and, on the other, an overidentification with its subjects. Finkel refuses to pathologize soldiers, even as he concentrates on the 20 to 30 percent who have been psychologically damaged to some degree by their service in Iraq or Afghanistan…This is not—nor should it be—an easy book. But it is an essential one. Finkel refuses to gild the misery and ugliness of the last decade and the unpoetic aftermath of war with the kind of sentimentality that has so often clouded our thinking, not only about our military commitments but also about the veterans they produce.
The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani
This is a heartbreaking book powered by the candor with which these veterans and their families have told their stories, the intimate access they have given Mr. Finkel…into their daily lives, and their own eloquence in speaking about their experiences…The stories of the soldiers and their families portrayed in Thank You for Your Service possess a visceral and deeply affecting power…that will haunt readers long after they have finished this book.
Publishers Weekly
From April 2007 to April 2008, Finkel, a MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter with the Washington Post, spent a total of eight months embedded in eastern Iraq with the young infantrymen of the 2-16 as their battalion fought desperately to survive and to make Bush’s troop surge a success. In 2009’s The Good Soldiers (one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of the Year), he chronicled their harrowing day-to-day experiences—as their trust in the Iraqi people eroded, their nerves and comrades were shot, and IED after IED exploded. In this incredibly moving sequel, Finkel reconnects with some of the men of the 2-16—now home on American soil—and brings their struggles powerfully to life. These soldiers have names and daughters and bad habits and hopes, and though they have left the war in Iraq, the Iraq War has not left them. Now the battle consists of readjusting to civilian and family life, and bearing the often unbearable weight of their demons. Some have physical injuries, and all suffer from crippling PTSD. And as if navigating their own mental and emotional labyrinths weren’t enough of a challenge, they must also make sense of the Dickensian bureaucracy that is the Department of Veterans Affairs. Told in crisp, unsentimental prose and supplemented with excerpts from soldiers’ diaries, medical reports, e-mails, and text messages, their stories give new meaning to the costs of service—and to giving thanks. Photos. Agent: Melanie Jackson, Melanie Jackson Agency. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Head of the Washington Post's national reporting team, Pulitzer Prize winner Finkel did an extraordinary job of explaining the Iraq War in The Good Soldiers, a best seller that followed the men of the 2–16 Infantry Battalion as they slogged through 15 months of the thunderous surge. Now he brings the war home, following many of the same men as they try to figure out how to engage again with both family and society.
Kirkus Reviews
Washington Post writer Finkel delivers one of the most morally responsible works of journalism to emerge from the post-9/11 era. To call this moving rendering of the costs of war a continuation of the author's first book, The Good Soldiers (2009), would be misleading. While Finkel does focus on the men of the 2-16 Infantry Battalion following their actions in Iraq, the breadth and depth of his portraits of the men and women scarred by the 21st century's conflicts are startling. In a series of interconnected stories, Finkel follows a handful of soldiers and their spouses through the painful, sometimes-fatal process of reintegration into American society. The author gives a cleareyed, frightening portrayal of precisely what it is like to suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury and what it is like to have the specter of suicide whispering into your ear every day. Finkel's emotional touchstone is Sgt. Adam Schumann, a genuine American hero who returned from Iraq without a physical scratch on him--but whose three tours of duty may have broken him for good. Schumann's condition, compounded by financial stress, drove a deep wedge between the wounded soldier and his wife, who has struggled to understand why her husband returned a changed man. Finkel also follows the widow of a soldier Schumann tried to save, an American Samoan vet whose TBI threatens to derail his life, and a suicidal comrade unable to overcome his condition, among others. Fighting on the front lines of this conflict are a compassionate case worker, a U.S. Army general who makes it his last mission to halt the waves of suicides, and the director of a transition center whose war should have ended long ago. The truly astonishing aspect of Finkel's work is that he remains completely absent from his reportage; he is still embedded. A real war story with a jarring but critical message for the American people.
From the Publisher
Praise for Thank You for Your Service:

“Incredible—a stunning, moving, subdued masterpiece of a book.”—The Christian Science Monitor

“The stories of the soldiers and their families portrayed in Thank You for Your Service possess a visceral and deeply affecting power on their own that will haunt readers long after they have finished this book.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Finkel sketches a panoramic view of postwar life....A book that every American should read.”—Jake Tapper, Los Angeles Times

“His reporting is astonishingly intimate yet utterly respectful, taking us inside the hearts and minds of these men and their families.”—Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times

“This is not—nor should it be—an easy book. But it is an essential one.”—Elizabeth D. Samet, The New York Times Book Review

“Embedded with the veterans, their families, their friends, and their counselors, Finkel lights up the lives of these struggling souls, who often compound their real problems by convincing themselves they’re ‘weak’ for ‘abandoning’ their buddies and seeking treatment…Vivid, compelling, heartrending.”—Jeff Stein, Bookforum

“Together with its masterful prequel The Good Soldiers, [Thank You for Your Service] measures the wages of the war in Iraq—the wages of war, period—as well as anything I’ve read...[Finkel] atones for our scant attention by paying meticulous heed.”—Frank Bruni, The New York Times

“I’m urging everyone I know to give Thank You for Your Service just a few pages, a few minutes out of their busy lives. The families honored in this urgent, important book will take it from there.”—Katherine Boo, National Book Award–winning author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Thank You for Your Service is one of the best and truest books I have ever read. David Finkel cuts through all the spin, the excuses, the blowhard politics and mind-deadening metrics to discover the cost of war for the soldiers who fight it and the families they come home to. This extraordinary book will piss you off and break your heart. It will shame you and lift you up. It will bend your mind to the reality of an American war that is now well into its second decade.”—Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, winner of the National Book Critics’ Circle Award and finalist for the National Book Award

“In this incredibly moving sequel, Finkel reconnects with some of the men of the 2-16—now home on American soil—and brings their struggles powerfully to life...Told in crisp, unsentimental prose and supplemented with excerpts from soldiers’ diaries, medical reports, e-mails, and text messages, their stories give new meaning to the costs of service—and to giving thanks.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“In a series of interconnected stories, Finkel follows a handful of soldiers and their spouses through the painful, sometimes-fatal process of reintegration into American society. The author gives a clear-eyed, frightening portrayal of precisely what it is like to suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury and what it is like to have the specter of suicide whispering into your ear every day.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Praise for The Good Soldiers:

“Finkel has made art out of a defining moment in history.”—Doug Stanton, The New York Times Book Review

The Good Soldiers by David Finkel is the most honest, most painful, and most brilliantly rendered account of modern war I’ve ever read.”—Daniel Okrent, Fortune

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374180669
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 10/1/2013
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 55,634
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

David Finkel is the award-winning author of The Good Soldiers. A staff writer for The Washington Post, he is also the leader of the Post’s national reporting team. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting in 2006, and the MacArthur “Genius” Grant in 2012. Finkel lives in Maryland, with his wife and two daughters.

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Read an Excerpt

1

 

 

Two years later: Adam drops the baby.

The baby, who is four days old, is his son, and there is a moment as he is falling that this house he has come home to seems like the most peaceful place in the world. Outside is the cold dead of 3:00 a.m. on a late-November night in Kansas, but inside is lamplight, the warm smell of a newborn, and Adam’s wife, Saskia, beautiful Saskia, who a few minutes before had asked her husband if he could watch the baby so she could get a little sleep. “I got it,” he had said. “I got it. Get some rest.” She curled up in the middle of their bed, and the last thing she glimpsed was Adam reclined along the edge, his back against the headboard and the baby in his arms. He was smiling, as if contentment for this wounded man were possible at last, and she believed it enough to shut her eyes, just before he shut his. His arms soon relaxed. His grip loosened. The baby rolled off of his chest and over the edge of the bed, and here came that peaceful moment, the baby in the air, Adam and Saskia asleep, everyone oblivious, the floor still a few inches away, and now, with a crack followed by a thud, the moment is over and everything that will happen is under way.

Saskia is the one who hears it. It is not loud, but it is loud enough. Her eyes fly open. She sees Adam closed-eyed and empty-armed, and only when he hears screaming and feels the sharp elbows and knees of someone scrambling across him does he wake up from the sleep he had promised he didn’t need. It takes him a second or two. Then he knows what he has done.

He says nothing. There is nothing he can say. He is sorry. He is always sorry now. He has been sorry for two years, ever since he slunk home from the war. He watches his wife scoop up the baby. He keeps watching, wishing she would look at him, willing her to, always so in need of forgiveness, but she won’t. She clutches the crying baby as he dresses and leaves the room. He sits for a while in the dark, listening to her soothe the baby, and then he goes outside, gets into his pickup truck, and positions a shotgun so that it is propped up and pointed at his face. In that way, he starts driving, while back in the house, Saskia is trying to understand what happened. A crack. A thud. The thud was the floor, and thank God for the ugly carpet. But what was the crack? The bed frame? The nightstand?

This baby. So resilient. Breathing evenly. Not even a mark. Somehow fine. How can that be? But he is. Maybe he is one of the lucky ones, born to be okay. Saskia lies with him, then gets up and comes back with a plastic bottle of water. She drops it from the side of the bed and listens to the sound it makes as it hits the floor.

She drops a pair of heavy shoes and watches them bounce.

She finds a basketball and rolls it off the edge.

She fills a drink container with enough water to weigh about as much as the baby, and as Adam continues driving and considering the gun, not yet, not yet, not yet, not yet, she rolls that off the edge, too.

*   *   *

Two years. He is twenty-eight now, is out of the army, and has gained back some weight. When he left the war as the great Sergeant Schumann, he was verging on gaunt. Twenty-five pounds later, he is once again solid, at least physically. Mentally, though, it is still the day he headed home. Emory, shot in the head, is still draped across his back, and the blood flowing out of Emory’s head is still rivering into his mouth. Doster, whom he might have loved the most, is being shredded again and again by a roadside bomb on a mission Adam was supposed to have been on, too, and after Doster is declared dead another soldier is saying to him, “None of this shit would have happened if you were there.” It was said as a soldier’s compliment—Adam had the sharpest eyes, Adam always found the hidden bombs, everyone relied on Adam—but that wasn’t how he heard it then or hears it now. It might as well have been shrapnel, the way those words cut him apart. It was his fault. It is his fault. The guilt runs so deep it defines him now. He’s always been such a good guy, people say of Adam. He’s the one people are drawn to, who they root for, smart, decent, honorable, good instincts, that one. And now? “I feel completely broken,” Adam says.

“He’s still a good guy” is what Saskia says. “He’s just a broken good guy.”

She says it as an explanation of why on some days she has hope that he will once again be the man he was before he went to war. It’s not as if he caused this. He didn’t. It’s not as if he doesn’t want to get better. He does. On other days, though, it seems more like an epitaph, and not only for Adam. All the soldiers he went to war with—the 30 in his platoon, the 120 in his company, the 800 in his battalion—came home broken in various degrees, even the ones who are fine. “I don’t think anyone came back from that deployment without some kind of demons they needed to work out,” one of those soldiers who was with Adam says.

“I’m sure I need help,” another says, after two years of night sweats and panic attacks.

“Constant nightmares, anger issues, and anytime I go into a public place I have to know what everyone is doing all the time,” another of them says.

“Depression. Nightmares of my teeth falling out,” another says.

“I get attacked at home,” another says. “Like I’m sitting in my house and I get attacked by Iraqis. That’s how it works. Weird-ass dreams.”

“It has been more than two years, and he’s still beating me,” the wife of another says. “My hair is falling out. I have a bite scar on my face. Saturday he was screaming at me about how I was a fucking bitch because I didn’t have the specific TV he wanted hooked up.”

“Other than that, though,” the one who might be in the best shape of all says with an embarrassed laugh, after mentioning that his wife tells him he screams every night as he falls asleep. He sounds bewildered by this, as do they all.

“I have to admit a day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about those days, the boys we lost, and what we did,” another says. “But life goes on.”

Out of one war into another. Two million Americans were sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Home now, most of them describe themselves as physically and mentally healthy. They move forward. Their war recedes. Some are even stronger for the experience. But then there are the others, for whom the war endures. Of the two million, studies suggest that 20 to 30 percent have come home with post-traumatic stress disorder—PTSD—a mental health condition triggered by some type of terror, or traumatic brain injury—TBI—which occurs when a brain is jolted so violently that it collides with the inside of the skull and causes psychological damage. Depression, anxiety, nightmares, memory problems, personality changes, suicidal thoughts: every war has its after-war, and so it is with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have created some five hundred thousand mentally wounded American veterans.

How to grasp the true size of such a number, and all of its implications, especially in a country that paid such scant attention to the wars in the first place? One way would be to imagine the five hundred thousand in total, perhaps as points on a map of America, all suddenly illuminated at once. The sight would be of a country glowing from coast to coast.

And another way would be to imagine them one at a time, starting with the one who is out in the middle of a Kansas night, driving around and around unseen. Toward dawn, he returns home. He doesn’t mention to Saskia where he has been, or what he had been thinking, and she doesn’t ask. Instead, the shotgun is put away, the baby awakens for his next feeding, their other child, who is six and anxious and has begun wetting her bed, awakens after doing so again, and a breaking family whose center has become Adam’s war wounds gets on with another day of trying to recover, followed by another day after that.

*   *   *

He doesn’t believe anything is wrong with him. That’s part of it. He stares at himself in a mirror, ignores what his red eyes look like except to see with continuing regret that he still has two of them, does the inventory. Two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs, two hands, two feet. Nothing missing. Symmetrical as ever. No scarred-over bullet holes. No skin grafts over bomb burns. Not even a smudge in the tattoo covering his right forearm, needled into him between deployments as a display of undying love, which says SASKIA in letters constructed of stick figures in various poses of having sex. He is physically unmarked, so how can he be injured? The answer must be that he isn’t. So why was he sent home with a diagnosis of severe PTSD? The answer must be that he’s weak. So why was that diagnosis confirmed again and again once he was home? 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? Why is he still tasting Emory’s blood? Because he’s weak. Because he’s a pussy. Because he’s a piece of shit. The thoughts keep coming, no way to stop them now, and yet when he goes into the living room and sees Saskia, he gives no indication of the pandemonium under way.

“Good morning,” he says, an act of civility that some days takes all of his might. Not that she doesn’t know, but he betrays nothing until he goes outside and sees that the neighbors have once again tied up their dogs on short leashes and that the dogs are tangled up and howling.

“God. People,” he says with disgust, and that is enough to loosen this morning’s version of the leash that Saskia finds herself bound by every day. Now her own storm begins over what her life has turned into, and there’s no sure way to stop hers, either.

“They have a forty-thousand-dollar car, and they live like shit,” she says, getting into the driver’s seat of their car, an aging SUV with a cracked windshield and balding tires. “That’s what this town is, forty-thousand-dollar cars and people who live like shit.”

The town, called Junction City, population twenty-five thousand or so, is adjacent to Fort Riley, the post where Adam deployed from and returned to three times during his seven years in the army. It is in the part of Kansas between the populated east and the wide-open rest of the state, a geography that tends to evoke in people who don’t live there idealized notions of America’s heartland and the poetry of the plains. As for Junction City itself, it has long had a reputation as a scruffy place, and the downtown neighborhood where Adam and Saskia live bears that out. Across the street is a convicted sex offender—a pedophile, Saskia suspects. Nearby is a drug dealer, and a few doors down is a parolee who keeps coming over and asking to use the phone. Poetry in the heartland: while Adam was gone, Saskia slept with a gun.

Their own old house is small for four people and two big, sweet, sloppy dogs, but it is what they can afford. It cost a little over a hundred thousand dollars. It has two small bedrooms on the main floor, and another bedroom in the basement, carved out of the grungy furnace room. Their bedroom is the one with three hidden guns. The baby, whose name is Jaxson, sleeps down the hall, and the basement is for Zoe, the six-year-old, who at bedtime has to be coaxed again and again to go down the steps.

Saskia found the house and bought it during Adam’s final deployment, the one that wrecked him. This was where they would claim the life they both had expected to have by his enlisting in the army: house, kids, dogs, yard, money, stability, predictability. She knew he was coming home ill, but she also knew that he would be better once he was away from the war and back with her, that just by her presence he would heal. “That fairy-tale homecoming” is how she thought of it. “Everybody’s happy. Kind of like an it-never-happened kind of thing.” When he got home and wasn’t happy, she told him she understood, and when he said he wasn’t yet ready to be around a lot of people, she understood that, too. Her patience, she had decided, would be bottomless. They rented out the house she had fixed up for him and moved to a vacated farmhouse out in the country. It was beautiful there in autumn, but less so in winter, when the fields turned to stubble and the gray sky lowered on them. The isolation finally became too much when one of their cars broke down, so they came back to Junction City, and Saskia decorated the bedroom with a wall stenciling that said “Always Kiss Me Goodnight.”

He did. Then, dulled by prescriptions for anxiety and depression and jitteriness and exhaustion and headaches, he didn’t. And then she didn’t, either, not always, and gradually less than that, and one day she confided to a friend, whose own husband had also come back ill from the war: “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.”

“Nothing will get better,” her friend said of what she had learned. “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.”

“The women have to be the ones to adapt. That’s the way it is for all of us,” Saskia said as her friend nodded, and now she is beginning another day of trying to do just that as the neighbor’s dogs howl and Adam climbs into the passenger seat. For whatever reason, her irritation keeps growing, and the fact that she realizes it and can’t stop it makes it worse. She drives a few blocks and abruptly pulls into a convenience store.

“Need gas?” Adam asks.

“Unless you want to push,” she says.

“Need anything from inside?”

She doesn’t answer.

“Doughnut?” he asks.

“No.”

He fills the car and goes inside to pay, and when he comes out he’s holding a Mountain Dew and a handful of lottery tickets.

“Are you kidding me?” she says as he starts scratching off the first of the tickets. She hates that he wastes money on lottery tickets, much less on Mountain Dew. “Keep dreaming,” she says as he tries the second one. She drives through town and follows a minivan onto a ramp to the interstate. “Why are they braking? Why are they braking? WHY ARE THEY BRAKING?” she yells.

She hits the gas and flies around an old woman, alone at the wheel, as Adam tries the third one.

“Last night, I passed by that bridge by Walmart, and there was a bum sitting under it surrounded by a huge pile of scratch-off tickets,” he tells her. “Somebody gave him some money, I guess, and he used it to buy scratch-offs.”

“That would be you,” she says.

He tries the fourth one as she accelerates to eighty. They are on their way to the VA hospital in Topeka, sixty miles to the east, for a doctor’s appointment. The war left him with PTSD, depression, nightmares, headaches, tinnitus, and mild traumatic brain injury, the result of a mortar round that dropped without warning out of a blue sky and exploded close enough to momentarily knock him silly. Between his government disability check of eight hundred dollars a month and his $36,000-a-year salary from a job he managed to find, he is pulling in about two thirds of what he made in the army, which is why Saskia hates when he wastes money on lottery tickets.

He tries the fifth one and announces, “I won ten bucks.”

Saskia looks at him. “You spent five,” she says. “You made five. What are you going to do with five?”

“Buy a pack of cigarettes.”

She hates that he smokes. She hates that he wants to be alone so much now, either fishing or hunting or out on the front porch having a cigarette in the dark. She hates that her patience didn’t turn out to be bottomless after all. A truck swerves in front of her. “You asshole,” she shouts.

It has been eight years since they met. This was in Minot, North Dakota. She was just out of high school, a girl who never missed curfew and was now on her own in a cheap basement apartment, and one day she emerged from the basement to the sight of a local boy with a rough reputation sitting in the sun without a shirt. What Adam saw was a girl staring at him whose beauty seemed a counterpoint to everything in his life so far, and that was that, for both of them. Soon came marriage and his SASKIA tattoo, and now here they are, her hitting the gas again and him reaching over to tickle her, break the tension, make her laugh. She flinches, as if his fingers have blades on them, and she accelerates until she’s only a few feet from another slow-moving car. “Get out of the way!” He moves his hand to the back of her head and caresses it, and this calms her enough to slow down to seventy-eight.

*   *   *

Sometimes after they fight, she counts his pills to make sure he hasn’t swallowed too many and checks on the guns to make sure they’re all there. The thought that he might not recover, that this is how it will be, makes her sick with dread sometimes, and the thought that he might kill himself leaves her feeling like her insides are being twisted until she can’t breathe.

The truth is that he has been thinking about killing himself, more and more. But he hasn’t said anything to her, or to anyone, not lately, because what would be the point? How many psychiatrists and therapists has he talked to? How many times has he mentioned it, and where has it gotten him?

“… daily thoughts of SI [suicidal ideation] running through his mind,” the psychiatrist who ordered his medical evacuation from the war noted just before he was sent home. “States it is alarming for him to think this way, and while he’s had suicidal thoughts in the past, this has been unremitting for him over the last few months.”

“Having much less suicidal thinking, but the thoughts come to him quickly,” a different psychiatrist noted a few months later, after he had come home.

“His thoughts come and go in phases. He has had thoughts twice this month,” another psychiatrist noted a few months after that.

“He acknowledges occasional suicidal ideation, that he would be better off dead, but he has never had a serious plan and never made an attempt. He does have guns but his wife keeps them away from them unless he needs to go hunting” was the next report, a few months later.

“You have suicidal thoughts: you reported daily thoughts of suicide with a plan and a means. However, you repeatedly denied intent to harm yourself due to care for your family” was the next one, which went on to note: “You have the ability to maintain minimum personal hygiene.”

Well, at least there’s that, Adam thought when he came across that report. Crazy, but clean. He found it when he was down in the furnace room going through papers to see what he might need to bring with him to the VA. His medical file is thick and repetitive and soon bored him, and he turned his attention to several boxes filled with letters that he and Saskia had written to each other while he was overseas, love letters all. They wrote to each other just about every day. That’s how they were. He read a few, and when they started making him a little sad over what had been lost between them, he moved on to other boxes, pausing when he came across a single piece of paper with a title on it that said “Places I Have Been.”

It was an old piece of paper from his grandfather, the other great soldier in the family, a list he had once made.

Atlantic Ocean.

Naples, Italy—filthy.

Pompeii, Italy—Interesting.

Rome, Italy—Beautiful.

Grosseto—We fought a tough battle there.

Vatican City—Very Beautiful.

Nice, France—girls. wow.

And that was it, one soldier’s World War Two. When he came home, he never talked about what he had been through in Grosseto, or Nice, or even crossing the Atlantic, when he would have been filled with the naive optimism of a soldier who hasn’t yet reached the war. Instead, he turned into an angry drunk who stayed that way for years. He fought in Korea and stayed that way, and then in Vietnam, and only after twenty-five years of serving his country and being abusive to his family did he get himself under control.

Adam was nine when he got to know his grandfather, and it’s hard to say who was more in need at that point. No longer drinking, his grandfather had lapsed into a life lived mostly in silence. Adam, meanwhile, had arrived at the crucial point of a ruinous childhood. When he was very young, he was sexually molested by an older neighborhood boy who was babysitting him. When he was six, he remembers, his father one day started hitting him and kept at it until Adam’s mother picked up a chair and charged her husband with it. When he was nine, his mother said one day, “Your father’s gone. He’s not coming back,” and it was true. Adam had been doing well enough until that point—honor-roll grades, no shortage of friends—but his mother had no money, and soon they were evicted from their house, sleeping at a relative’s and living out of a car, and then they were moving in with this strange old soldier, who as far as Adam was concerned was just one more man who was going to let him down.

Instead of ignoring him, though, or abusing him, the old man would pile his bruised grandson into his Cadillac and take him for long drives. Just the two of them, keeping each other company. He never said a word, except to swear at other drivers. “You fucking bastard,” he would scream, and then keep driving in silence, smoking incessantly. At home, he didn’t talk, either. If he was reading the newspaper and wanted to show someone something, he would point to it with his middle finger, always his middle finger, and slide it across the table.

That someone was usually Adam. His grandfather was his first experience with war wounds, and Adam grew to love him, and soon after the old soldier died, he joined the army and became a great soldier and now has his own list of places he has been.

United States—born, molested, beaten, abandoned, girls. wow.

Iraq—We fought a tough battle there.

Interstate 70 in Kansas—“Hi. This is Adam Schumann,” he says on the phone now, Topeka nearing, calling to confirm his appointment at the VA. He listens for a moment and hangs up.

“The appointment’s not till tomorrow,” he says to Saskia.

She shoots him a look, starts to say something, doesn’t.

So he says it for her.

“Goddamn it.”

They ride in silence for a few miles.

“Fuck,” he says. “Fuck.”

“Well it’s not my fault,” she says. “Maybe you should write shit down.” She gets off the interstate at the exit for the hospital. Maybe they can worm their way in somehow. “Why didn’t you call this morning?”

“I was sure it was today,” Adam says. He rubs his forehead. He slaps his head. He drums his fingers on his leg.

There’s the hospital in the distance. Saskia slams on the brakes at an intersection in order to avoid a woman crossing the street against the light. “Dumb bitch,” she explodes.

“God, I can’t believe I messed everything up,” Adam says.

At the hospital now:

They pass through an entranceway lined with survivors of previous wars in wheelchairs and “Proud to Be an American” T-shirts. “It just stinks like old people and smoke,” Saskia says. They walk down a hallway behind a woman who is giving a tour to two men. “The guys from Vietnam are so expressive, but the new ones, from Iraq and Afghanistan, go straight to violence and suicide,” the woman says. “Mm-hmm,” one of the men says. One of the worst things about Adam’s war, the thing that got to everyone, was not having a defined front line. It was a war in 360 degrees, no front to advance toward, no enemy in uniform, no predictable patterns, no relief, and it helped drive some of them crazy. Here, though, in this new war of Adam’s, there is a front line: this hospital. This old, underfunded, understaffed hospital, which nevertheless includes a compassionate receptionist who says she will see what she can do and a doctor who is underpaid and overwhelmed and says that of course he can squeeze Adam in. So in Adam goes, preceded by all of the previous histories dictated about him over these two years, rendered as only doctors and interpreting bureaucrats can:

Topeka VAMC reports you were clean and appropriately and casually dressed. Your psychomotor activity was unremarkable. Your speech was clear and unremarkable. Your attitude toward the examiner was cooperative, friendly and attentive. Your affect was expressive. Your mood was depressed and irritated. Your attention was intact. You were fully oriented to person, place and time. Your thought process was unremarkable, but your thought content was distressed, and irritated with others. You do not have delusions. As to judgment: you understand the outcome of behavior. Your intelligence was average. As to insight: you understand that you have a problem …

Saskia waits outside. Sometimes she goes in with him, sometimes not. She wonders if this doctor will be able to speak understandable English, unlike the last one. She wonders if he will look Adam in the eye as he asks his questions or keep his back turned as he types Adam’s responses into a computer. She is sure she knows what the doctor will say: Adam is wounded. Adam is ill. Adam needs to stay on his medications. Adam deserves the thanks of a grateful nation. She is seated near a sign for a suicide hotline that says, “It takes the courage and strength of a warrior to ask for help,” but she has her own saying at this point: “How much can you pity a person who cannot help himself?”

And then, just like that, as Adam emerges and she sees how lost he appears, even scared, her mood breaks, and she is once again allowing in possibility and all the hurt that comes with it.

On the way home, they pass the little airport where Adam returned from the war.

There were ceremonies when the others came home, raucous celebrations in a Fort Riley gym filled with spangly women, flag-waving children, and signs. “Welcome home, Daddy.” “Welcome home, heroes.” Straight from the war, the soldiers would march into the gym, in formation, and when they were dismissed a few minutes later, there would be a great rush as the order of the place dissolved into screams and embraces. It happened every time, again and again, as all of the Fort Riley soldiers returned, and at one of the ceremonies, everyone spilled out of the gym and into a perfect Kansas day: blue sky, buttercups in the summer grass, a gentle breeze, and then an unexpected puff of wind. It blew the caps off of men and lifted the flowery skirt of one of the young wives, exposing the thong she had chosen for this day and the new butterfly tattoo she had gotten, and instead of smoothing her skirt back into place, she laughed as she felt it rise like a kite above her shoulders, and the soldier she was with couldn’t stop staring and grinning, and everyone around them laughed, knowing what would be coming next, the sex, the desire, the relief that he was home safely, the poetry in the plains, and could there have been a moment further from the one that Adam had when he arrived?

No ceremony, no signs, no spangly dress—just Saskia pressed against a window of the terminal, watching him get off a plane. He descended the steps with the other passengers onto the tarmac, and Saskia thought: He’s a skeleton. She had been hoping so hard. Now she knew.

As for Adam, as he walked across the tarmac, he wished he were on crutches and covered in bandages. The great soldier, returning from war. He felt ashamed. He walked into the terminal. He dreaded what Saskia would think of him. Now he saw her. She was smiling her beautiful smile. All of a sudden, he wanted to run to her. Here was his moment of welcome, his chance at absolution, and that was when he noticed the woman standing next to Saskia. He had never seen her before, but she seemed to know him because she was rushing toward him, on the verge of tears.

“Can you tell me what happened to my husband?” she was saying. “Can you tell me what happened?”

That was how he came home. Those were his welcoming words.

 

Copyright © 2013 by David Finkel

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2013

    The spare and direct writing style is very effective in re-telli

    The spare and direct writing style is very effective in re-telling the age old parable for the horrors of war. It is brilliantly written. The prose is compelling and powerful.

    Every jingoist politician who is tempted to capriciously send our young men and women to war should be forced to read this. The disproportionate, the inequality, of sacrifice suffered by today's "volunteer" army is staggering.

    The spare and economic style of the narrative is most effective in describing the reality of the post- horrors of war .

    Over 6,500 dead and 40,000 wounded. For what? By the end of the excerpt I had tears streaming down my face.

    500,000 walking wounded suffering from PTSD and/or TBI, does not even begin to define the magnitude of the problem...or to quantify the injustice to our brave soldiers. But the unseen victims of war...the wives, mothers and fathers, siblings...and the children, must number in an order of magnitude of 3 -4 times that.

    All the billions and billions of dollars wasted on waging an unnecessary war in Irag, and a dubious one in Afghanistan...and yet, these "broken warriors", upon their return, are treated like collateral damage of war...by the people that sent them. Maybe if some of their own children had been available for conscription, these wars would never have been started. Disgraceful.

    I recommend this book very highly. I will buy it and read it. Unfortunately not enough of the people who frivolously send our children off to war will not.

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 26, 2013

    Deserves the Pulitzer

    For some reason I got into reading about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I read War by Junger, liked it. Generation Kill by Wright, also liked it. Read Good Soldiers and instantly acknowledged it as the best of the bunch. He is not only a reporter, but a serious literature with a powerful command of the subtelty of language. The book immediately pulls you back in to the Good Soldiers World--post-War. The perfect epilogue for Good Soldiers. It rips your heart out in a very good way.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 22, 2013

    Informative, important reading

    Knowledge is power, and this is a powerful, mind-expanding revelation of effects on The Good Soldiers.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 24, 2014

    Ry

    Merci Is So Simple.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 24, 2014

    Hush

    So are you. It's why we have a different book. cx

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 30, 2014

    Sanctus Star 黦

    What clan are we in? Go to res three of it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2014

    Mark Kasic Memorial Day is not just for the physically wounded

    Mark Kasic

    Memorial Day is not just for the physically wounded veterans and active duty service men and women but also for the mentally and emotionally.  Men and women all around different world are mentally and physically wounded from war.  U.S. military may be voluntary ever since the Second World War but it wasn’t always like that.  The WWP or Wounded Warrior Project have helped 320 warriors get placed in jobs, help them recover from the wars they have been in, and to help them live with their disabilities and have a great life.  Thank You For Your Service is a biography about the men and women David Finkel followed for research on post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. This includes the men in his battalion and the wives of these men.  “Of the two million, studies suggest the 20 to 30 percent have come home with post-traumatic stress disorder-PTSD-a mental health condition triggered by some type of terror, or traumatic brain injury-TBI-which occurs when a brain is jolted so violently that it collides with the inside of the skull and causes psychological damage.” pg 19
    This book is interesting to me because most of the time on a street most people only see the physically wounded warriors.  This book shows that there is more than just that.  Coming from a family with a grandpa as a WWII Marine fighting right next to the raising of the flag that all Marines are known for, I understand that wounded warriors are not only physically wounded.  Knowing all this just helps me understand more about why he was irritable sometimes and would b aggressive.  With all this in mind I still want to follow in his footsteps as a United States Marine. 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 2013

    Anonymous DEcember 19 2013

    The most diturbing book I have ever read. Every one who supported this war should read this book to understand what has been done to thousands of our milatary and thier families.


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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2013

    Insightful

    Great book

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  • Posted November 18, 2013

    Thank you for this book

    I think that "Thank you for Your Service" is a very important book. I am actually in the middle of it now. It does tell of the pain that the people involved in the particular unit are going through as they return from Iraq after a deployment. It is sad seeing people's marriages begin to fall apart because of the trauma of what they experienced in Iraq. I am looking forward to finishing the book and giving a more detailed review.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 12, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 3, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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