By Krystyna von Henneberg
“You could see it in his nervous eyes. You could see it in his shaking hands. You could see it in the three prescription bottles in his room: one to steady his galloping heart rate, one to reduce his anxiety, one to minimize his nightmares.”
So begins journalist David Finkel’s hard-hitting new book, “Thank You for Your Service,” a searing portrait of life on the home front for several wounded U.S. war veterans and their families.
A powerful, unsparing look at the long-term effects of modern warfare, Finkel’s book is this year’s choice for Davis Reads, a citywide community book project based at the Stephens Branch Library, 315 E. 14th St. in Davis. Now in its fourth year, Davis Reads brings local readers together to enjoy a book and talk about important issues facing the community.
Finkel is an acclaimed journalist and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. He first wrote about military life in wartime Iraq in his bestselling 2009 book “The Good Soldiers.” In it, he followed several members of a U.S. infantry battalion during their deployment to eastern Baghdad in early 2007.
In “Thank You for Your Service,” Finkel follows some of these very same men on their as they return to civilian life. Several have suffered serious injury, including traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Using the vets’ own unvarnished words, the author tracks their progress through the maze of treatment and rehabilitation in Veterans Administration hospitals. He also explores the devastating effects of wartime trauma on veterans’ spouses, children and friends. While focusing on recent wars in the Middle East, the book also tells a more universal story about military trauma that will be familiar to veterans from other wars, including World War II and the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.
Finkel opens the book with Staff Sgt. Adam Schumann preparing to board a helicopter for a “mental health evacuation” from a forward operating base near Sadr City, Iraq. Schumann is reeling from the death of close comrades in his battalion.
On the phone to Kansas, he reassures his agitated wife, who fears for his safety, as well as her own. “You know I’d never hurt you,” he says. “But what if she’s right?” he wonders. “What if I snap someday?”
The question is not an idle one. A few pages later, Finkel cuts to the future: “Two years later,” he writes, “Adam drops the baby.” Schumann’s family life begins to unravel from there.
Finkel’s realistic prose makes this book a riveting but sobering read. Page after page, though, readers also discover the quiet heroism of many people — including counselors, medical and Army staff, and spouses — who offer help, and help carry the weight of soldiers’ trauma, and confront news of their death.
The story of Kansas war widow Amanda Doster is a case in point. Her husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class James D. Doster of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, was killed in an insurgent attack in his Humvee in Baghdad in 2007. One day, two soldiers in Class A uniforms ring the doorbell of her suburban home.
Finkel describes Amanda Doster busily bathing her two little daughters and baking cookies. As a military wife, she knows immediately what this visit portends. Wait, she cautions them. “There are a few things I have to get done before you say it.”
Methodically, she turns off the oven, closes the bathroom door and calls a neighbor to pick her girls up. Then she sits down on the sofa and braces for the news.
The vets and their families experiences face a range of challenges, from the ordinary to the harrowing. On good days, they patch up their marriages, raise their kids and try to pay their bills. On tough days, they battle survivor guilt, addiction, depression and abusive rages. Some deal with disfiguring physical injuries and painful treatments. Some take their own lives.
This is a riveting and compassionate book. It is also timely. California voters just endorsed Proposition 41, to support housing and prevent homelessness for veterans. Bills like this one aside, the fate of wounded soldiers is an issue that is all too often overlooked, both locally and nationwide.
Suicide rates among wounded soldiers accessing VA care have reached nearly twice that of the general population, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Last month, a scandal over the long waits endured by many veterans seeking VA hospital care triggered the resignation of the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Eric K. Shinseki.
Finkel’s book has the great merit of taking us beyond the headlines, into the living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms of a handful of wounded vets. The book even has a local angle. Several scenes take place in nearby Yountville (site of the Veterans’ Home of California), where Schumann seeks treatment at a center for veterans called Pathway Home.
Critics have praised the book for making them think and for making them cry. One reviewer called it “the most honest, most painful, most brilliantly rendered account of modern war I’ve ever read.”
War, Finkel shows us, is not glamorous. Wars have a hidden half-life all their own. Not everyone survives the battle, and not everyone survives the homecoming, either. Finkel’s work suggests that we honor the troops not only by celebrating their sacrifice at the front. We also honor them by seeking to understand and help them in their hour of need, in the less glamorous, less visibly heroic aftermath of combat.
With his honest and bold reportage, Finkel brings the stories of injured veterans out of the shadows. His book challenges the sense of shame and despair that often clouds mental health issues, and makes some veterans’ stories so hard to tell.
This is a book for thoughtful people who wish to better understand the impact of war on their neighbors, friends and community. Half somber tribute, half chilling exposé, it is a bold invitation to all of us to talk about, and take action, to support veterans on the never-ending journey home.
The Stephens Branch Library has multiple copies of “Thank You for Your Service” in print and audiobook form. Davis readers are invited to take part in a series of events, starting this month, to discuss and share the lessons of the book. You do not have to have read the book to join in!
Note: The book has been translated into Spanish but is not yet available in the U.S. market.
All events are free and accessible to the handicapped. They take place at the library at 315 E 14th St., Davis.
* Wednesday, June 25, 6-8 p.m., Blanchard Room: Community book forum and discussion
* Wednesday, July 30, 6-8 p.m., Blanchard Room: Community book forum: Share your own stories of homecoming and healing in the wake of war
* Sunday, Sept. 14, 3-5 p.m., library lobby: What’s It All About? weekend outreach table
* Saturday, Nov. 1, 6-8 p.m., Blanchard Room: Community book forum and discussion
Davis Reads is a joint project of Davis branch librarian Joan Tuss and Krystyna von Henneberg of Creative Language Works. This year’s initiative is supported by the Davis Friends of the Library and the Winters Friends of the Library.
Questions? Contact Tuss at Joan.Tuss@yolocounty.org