They hate the patriotic bumper stickers. “Take that s*** off,” one veteran tells his mother, who has proudly plastered the slogan “Proud Mother of a Soldier” on her car. Many of them do not understand why they are called heroes. Some of them have trouble driving, fearing IEDs beside the highways of Kansas. Most cannot sleep.
These are the men of David Finkel’s Thank You for Your Service. His earlier book, The Good Soldiers, had Finkel installed with an Army battalion in Iraq. Now those same troops are back home, and he is there with them; his writing is as fine as ever, sensitive but never sentimental.
It does not matter how you feel about the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, Bush or Obama when you are with a veteran like Adam Schumman, now in Junction City, Kan., and even more lost than he had been in Camp Rustamiyah, east of Baghdad. Schumman is sorry that he dozed off, dropping his baby son and, a little later, is holding a gun to his chin, threatening to kill himself, because he and wife are always fighting, because he is guilty about what happened to James Doster on a mission that he, Schumman, should have been on.
And then there is Amanda Doster, who was baking cookies when they came to tell her that her husband was killed by a roadside bomb. “There are a few things I have to get done before you say it,” she told the two soldiers in their dress uniforms standing at her door.
And Tausolo Aieti, an American Samoan, who is “getting help” at a clinic in Topeka. All the vets in this book are getting help, and they are all helpless. “He began to drink so much vodka that his skin smelled of it, and then he started mentioning suicide,” Finkel writes. Eventually, Aieti finds salvation at a community college algebra class. Others are not so lucky.
Suicide haunts this book, as do drug abuse, alcoholism, post-traumatic stress syndrome, traumatic brain injuries sustained in combat, the profound imperfections of our VA system and the inability of those who did not fight to understand those who did. But Thank You For Your Service is not a haranguing book of policy recommendations or political broadsides. Combat has made men mad ever since Ajax, the ancient Greek warrior, killed himself after fighting in the Trojan War. The horrors of war are today clad in Kevlar, but I suspect they are not so different than when men clashed with spears and swords.
And we will always need writers -- whether poets like Homer or journalists like Finkel -- willing to record the wages of war, which are sometimes visible and sometimes not.