“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends,” Joan Didion writes in “Goodbye To All That.” Didion isn’t writing about war in that essay but she might as well have been: As America’s post-9/11 military incursions move into their second decade, it’s worth re-examining their calamitous impact on families on the home front. The after-war, in which soldiers often return to America from Iraq or Afghanistan psychologically and physically wounded and tormented by guilt, is the subject of David Finkel’s disturbing expose, Thank You for Your Service.
Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post editor and writer whose previous book, The Good Soldiers, chronicled the struggles of life in Baghdad for the Army’s 2-16 Infantry Battalion during the surge in 2009, found himself drawn to telling the stories of these soldiers and their families as they fight—sometimes successfully, sometimes not—to achieve a semblance of normalcy after returning to the United States. Finkel embedded himself with the soldiers to great effect in his first book; this time around, he does it at home and depicts soldiers, wives and children as they quarrel, struggle with depression and suicide and receive diagnoses of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“These are wounded people, they’re hurt and they’re angry at times,” says Finkel. “I don’t think any of them knew quite what they were getting into by going into this war and coming [home] from it.”
He took copious notes and recorded countless conversations over the course of almost two years to capture the essence of the war’s long-term impact on families and its devastating ability to shatter lives at home. One of the men he writes about, Tausolo Aieti, graduated from a recovery program in a Veterans Affairs hospital in Topeka, Kansas. The theory behind the program is that soldiers immerse themselves in whatever traumatic incident brought them to this point by writing and talking about it. For Aieti, that means recalling in grim detail the bomb that sent his Humvee soaring into the air (and that he pulled out his comrades but was unable to save one fellow soldier). Finkel sums up his post-recovery return:
Home now, and it’s just as he had left it seven weeks before. The walls are gouged from him throwing whatever he could get his hands on. The bedroom door has a fist-shaped hole all the way through it. At least Theresa is no longer cowering, but she is looking at him with her own version of a stunned expression, one that tells Tausolo she is wondering what will happen next.
Earning the trust of these men and women as he accompanied them on hospital visits, witnessed arguments and watched relationships stretched to the limit allowed Finkel to capture their mental anguish in finely wrought detail. “I never wanted them to forget what the relationship was: I’m not a priest, not a social worker, not their private confessor; I’m someone who is taking notes to write a book about this,” he says.
Although the VA’s mental health care system functions more effectively than it used to and the Army recognizes that they must not only care for soldiers during war but after it as well, Thank You for Your Service is nothing if not a call to arms for further improvements. Wounds this deep aren’t easily healed and many of these men are still reluctant or unable to ask for the help that they desperately need. Despite the Army’s caretaking efforts, 350 active duty soldiers committed suicide last year.
In the course of reporting on this heart-wrenching topic, Finkel was affected by the emotional rollercoaster of his subjects’ lives as they dealt with their darkest moments. Finkel shared one story that prompted him to briefly put down his reporter’s notebook when one of the book’s characters had come close to killing himself.
“I took notes on the whole thing, but I wasn’t present at that point. It became clear to me that he was so in need of help at that moment. And I kind of put the notebook down, deliberately put it down, and said, ‘I’m putting this notebook away. I’m stepping outside of the lines I’m supposed to operate in. You need to think about how you can get some help,’” Finkel recalls. “This doesn’t sound like a giant thing, but for a journalist it was a weird thing to do. In some ways, he didn’t have anyone to talk to saying, ‘You’ve got to get some help.’ What kind of person am I if I don’t seize the moment? It was a clear choice. We talked for a few minutes and then I picked the notebook up and said, ‘Back to the story.’”
That type of respect and compassion, along with a journalistic eye for nuance, is what makes Finkel such a trustworthy conduit for his characters. He cuts straight to the heart of the issue by crafting a book that goes beyond static suicide reports to depict full-rendered characters that will resonate with readers regardless of their political affiliation.
Despite the increasing numbers of psychologically wounded returning soldiers, Finkel’s book is guardedly optimistic about the future. “Everyone in the book keeps trying. For the most part, everyone against the odds keeps trying to make the system better or make themselves better—I found that terribly moving,” he says. “That just never failed to amaze me.”
Christopher Carbone is a writer living in New York City. He also writes for The Guardian and The Nation. Follow him on Twitter.