In his 2009 book, “The Good Soldiers,” David Finkel produced the definitive look at the boots-on-the-ground soldier in Iraq during what has become known as “the Surge.” His observational skills took us along with a Kansas-based Army unit deployed on the outskirts of Baghdad.
Now Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and editor at the Washington Post, has followed up with the post-Iraq lives of some of those soldiers and their families, documenting the aftereffects of their experiences in Baghdad. Where “The Good Soldiers” provides a snapshot of a period of U.S. involvement in Iraq that will stand the test of time, his new work, “Thank You for Your Service,” is a disturbing template for what this country can expect to experience from the people we sent to war who came home different: post-traumatic stress, depression, suicide, domestic abuse, drug and alcohol problems. It is a world of Wal-Marts and money problems with men in their 20s who feel like they are 90 and the wives who try to keep it all together.
It’s a testament to Finkel’s considerable journalistic skills that this is no sentimental or clichéd work. His vivid descriptions of the minutiae of everyday life provide a fly-on-the-wall observation without judgment. The struggles of the modern soldier that many us have heard about (and some of us have written about) are painted more vividly and intimately than we’ve experienced before.
Finkel takes us to the basement of Sgt. Adam Schumann’s home, where Schumann sits on a folding chair holding a shotgun under his chin. We are down the 12 creaky steps with a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling, a room of dimness and shadows. This is no solitary act. Schumann’s wife, Saskia, is in the basement, too, pleading that she and the kids need him. Given the state of their marriage, five minutes earlier, she had wanted him to pull the trigger.
Finkel’s access is extraordinary, yet his presence is never imposing. He takes us inside brutal counseling sessions at a California treatment program for vets. At a time when the Army is struggling with a suicide rate that is higher than the number killed in combat, Finkel shows us for the first time what it is like in the Gardner Room, a conference room in the Pentagon where Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff, has been tasked with addressing the crisis. There is a young girl who wants to dye her hair blue. While her parents dismiss it as the fecklessness of a teenage girl, she explains that she hopes to attract attention to herself, so that fewer eyes will be on her father, disfigured in an explosion, when the family walks through Wal-Mart.
“Thank You for Your Service” is actually a better read than “The Good Soldiers,” which occasionally labored by telling the stories of too many characters. For those of us who have covered these kinds of issues with less success and precision, it is a quiet lesson from a craftsman at the top of his game. For others, it is an understated but penetrating warning about life after war. I’ll be giving my copy to someone who can benefit from its insight.
Star Tribune writer Mark Brunswick has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Bosnia.