David Finkel embedded himself with the men of the 2-16, as they participated in the Iraq surge. He wrote a book about it. I haven’t read that one, but I’ve read the follow-up, Than You for Your Service, where he embeds with the same members of the 2-16, but this time, as they deal with the assimilation back into society; mainly, the psychological wounds associated with war.
To be sure, this book is merely a snapshot of that psychological toll taken by our soldiers during war, as there are nearly 500,000 such individuals struggling with some sort of mental issue (depression, PTSD, anxieties, reoccurring nightmares, anger issues and so on).
And it’s not just about the soldiers; it’s about their wives and their children and their caseworkers and their leaders in the military trying to solve the problem. The wives, in many instances, are just as fucked up as the soldiers. Some wives can’t be the “soldier’s wife” and deal with a broken, damaged goods man – a man that returned much, much different than before he left for war. Others seem almost masochistic in their devotion to “seeing it through.” One day he’ll get better, right? One day turns into two years turns into five years turns into a suicide. Some say, he just needs to “man up” and come on already, we got bills to pay, children to raise and a marriage to save.
Meanwhile, the soldier due to the stigmatization of mental illness, especially within the macho ranks of the military, is thinking the same thing. Why them? Why did they return with a brain that’s not working right when others seem just fine? Why don’t they have any physical manifestation of the war they went through? Their pain is unseen, so they’re weak; they’re pussies. Guys are walking around with fucking missing goddamn limbs, arms, legs, hands, blown off by IEDs and they’re fine by all appearances. But they’re not fine.
One soldier not doing fine is Adam Schumann. He has a wife, two kids; one’s an infant, and he drops him one night. Another night he gets into one of the worst arguments he’s had with his wife and ends up in the furnace room downstairs with a loaded shotgun barrel up under his chin and its loaded. During the war, he saved another soldier, Michael Emory that had been shot by carrying him, with Emory’s blood dripping into his mouth. This is what haunts him, cripples him mentally.
The wife’s not doing much better. She’s getting anxious about the bills every month. And Adam’s just not getting better. She also finds her infant almost-drowned in the backyard swimming pool. Damn baby’s doing fine, though, somehow. She wanted him to pull that trigger in the furnace room. But, no, she didn’t. She loves him. But fuck, she hates him so much sometimes; she’s not strong enough for this, she thinks. Her other kid is wetting the bed. This isn’t how she envisioned her life going.
Another wife supposedly, according to one case worker, fabricates a story that her husband, a soldier with dementia losing his mind daily, molested their thirteen-year-old daughter so he could finally get the treatment he needed.
Another documents her husband’s paranoid, verbally abusive descent. He wakes her up in the middle of the night saying one day he’s going to fucking kill her. Another day, he wants to punch her in the fucking face. Another day, he’s packing up the family car and driving them hundreds of miles because “they’re watching us.” He does this until the day he kills himself.
Meanwhile, the head Pentagon honcho that oversees suicides in the military and for a while there until he couldn’t do it anymore, tried to combat it, is General Peter Chiarelli, U.S. Army vice chief of staff. They have monthly meetings in the Gardening Room to discuss the suicides. Most occur through hanging or overdose or cutting their wrists. Emory, the one Adam saved, whose blood dripped into his mouth, tried to eat through his own wrist; he’s doing better now.
After Chiarelli leaves, suicides are happening almost one-a-day and have surpassed combat deaths.
“I’ve lost all hope; darkness is all I see,” Adam Schumann writes in a journal.
Finkel captures all of these incredibly intimate, emotionally-jarring, open moments that it truly astounds that he was able to be in such a position – that they trusted him enough to relay such information, such revealing information. You’re there when Schumann’s wife is sending him fifty text messages in a row because she’s desperate and scared and filled with anxiety. You’re there when one soldier’s wife breaks down on the anniversary of her husband’s death in Iraq. You’re there. And it’s a remarkable reflection upon Finkel’s journalism, integrity and boldness that he holds nothing back. His writing is direct and he lets these intimate details speak for themselves; there is no flowery language or unnecessary verbiage here.
The so-called “not dying” journey of this book makes it a must-read for anyone and everyone. It sheds a real, tangible light on the misery, suffering and pain soldiers, their wives and children, and the apparatus therein (those like Chiarelli or case workers) go through in war’s aftermath. It’s not an enjoyable book in the truest sense of that word; it unravels a complex and still not fully understood problem; why do some soldiers come back okay and others don’t? The intimate stories told to demonstrate the “not okay” ones is humbling and gut-wrenching for this reader.
As a New York Times review put it, “The inevitability of psychological crises does nothing to absolve us of the responsibility of providing that care. But it should figure much more prominently in the reckoning whenever the hawks urge us on to another ill-conceived display of American military might.”
One can hope.