In The Good Soldiers, journalist David Finkel embedded with the men of the 2-16 Infantry Battalion as they carried out the surge in Iraq. For his latest book, Thank You For Your Service, Finkel followed many of those men home. In this excerpt, we meet a soldier with the same sort of invisible trauma so many veterans suffer.
Two years after: Adam Schumann is 28, is out of the army, and has gained back some weight. When he left the war as the great Sergeant Schumann, he was verging on gaunt. Twenty-five pounds later, he is once again solid, at least physically. Mentally, though, he is still in the midst of war: In his mind, Emory, shot in the head, is still draped across his back, and the blood flowing out of Emory’s head is still rivering into his mouth. Doster, whom he might have loved the most, is being shredded again and again by a roadside bomb on a mission Adam was supposed to have been on, too; and after Doster is dead, another soldier is saying that it wouldn’t have happened if Adam had been there. It was meant as a compliment—Adam had the sharpest eyes, Adam always found the hidden bombs—but that wasn’t how he heard it then or hears it now. It was his fault. It is his fault. The guilt runs so deep it defines him now. He’s always been such a good guy, people say of Adam. He’s the one people are drawn to, whom they root for—honorable, good instincts, that one. And now? “I feel completely broken,” Adam says.
“He’s still a good guy,” his wife, Saskia, says. “He’s just a broken good guy.”
She says it as an explanation of why on some days she still has hope that he will again be the man he was before he went to war. On other days, though, it seems more like an epitaph, and not only for Adam. All of the soldiers he went to war with came home broken to varying degrees, even the ones who are fine.
“I’m sure I need help,” one of those soldiers says, after two years of night sweats and panic attacks.
“Constant nightmares, anger issues,” another says.
“Depression. Nightmares of my teeth falling out,” another says.
“Other than that, though,” another says with an embarrassed laugh, after mentioning that his wife tells him he screams every night as he falls asleep. He sounds bewildered by this, as do they all.
Out of one war into another. Two million Americans were sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Home now, most describe themselves as healthy. They move forward. Some are even stronger for the experience. But of the two million, studies suggest that 20 to 30 percent have come home with varying degrees of post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental-health condition triggered by some type of terror, or traumatic brain injury, which occurs when a brain is jolted so violently that it causes psychological damage. Depression, anxiety, memory problems, personality changes, suicidal thoughts: Every war has its after-war, and so it is with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, which, if the studies prove correct, will have created some 500,000 mentally wounded American veterans.
How to grasp the true size of such a number, and its implications? One way would be to imagine the 500,000 in total, perhaps as points on a map of America, illuminated. The sight would be of a country glowing from coast to coast.
Another way would be to imagine them one at a time, starting with the one who doesn’t believe anything is wrong with him. He stares at himself in a mirror, does the inventory. Two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs, two hands, two feet. Nothing missing. Symmetrical as ever. He is physically unmarked, so how can he be injured? The answer must be that he isn’t. So why was he sent home with a diagnosis of severe PTSD? The answer must be that he’s weak. So why was that diagnosis confirmed again and again once he was home? Why does he get angry? Why does he forget things? Why is he jittery? Why can’t he stay awake? Why is he still tasting Emory’s blood? Because he’s weak. Because he’s worthless. Because he’s despicable. Because he’s unforgivable. The thoughts keep coming, no way to stop them now, and yet when he goes into the living room and sees Saskia, he gives no indication of the pandemonium underway.
“Good morning,” is what he says.
Author David Finkel reads the prologue to his book in the audio clip below. (The excerpt contains some profanity.)