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Tue October 1, 2013

'Thank You For Your Service' Follows America's Soldiers Home

Originally published on Thu October 3, 2013 11:58 am

In the pages of David Finkel's new book, you'll meet a veteran who has recurring nightmares in which a fellow soldier asks, "Why didn't you save me?" You'll also meet a veteran who sees images of dead Iraqis floating in his bathtub, and another who tries to kill himself by biting through his right wrist — the only wrist he can raise to his mouth since his left side is paralyzed.

These are the men of the 2-16 Infantry Battalion with whom Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, embedded during the troop surge in Iraq. He recorded their stories in his first book, The Good Soldiers.

His new book, Thank You for Your Service, checks back in with the soldiers who made it home. Finkel tells NPR's Melissa Block about the psychological wounds they brought back with them.


Interview Highlights

On Sgt. Adam Schumann's painful return

These guys went [to Iraq] from Fort Riley as part of this new thing called the "surge." Schumann, at that point, was on his third tour. By the time he cracked open, midway through the tour, he had spent about a thousand days in combat. He was regarded throughout his battalion as one of the very best soldiers, and the day came where he just couldn't do it anymore. And he was filled with such a sense of guilt and shame over having to leave the war before the war was done. ...

He's the main guy in this book, [which] begins two years later. He's home, he's in Kansas with his wife and a new baby. ... It's the middle of the night, she's exhausted, the baby's a few days old — she asks him if he can hold the baby, and he says, "Of course." And he takes the baby, she falls asleep and he falls asleep too and the baby rolls out of his arms and over the edge of the bed. ...

A couple minutes later, Adam Schumann is in his truck driving around the Kansas countryside, a shotgun pointed at himself, thinking maybe this is the time to die.

On the traumatic experience that still haunts Schumann

This was fairly early in the deployment, when a guy named Michael Emory was on the rooftop during an operation, and he was shot in the head by a sniper. He had to be evacuated — for some reason, he wasn't dead — and Schumann basically put Emory on his back in a fireman's carry to get him down three flights of stairs to a Humvee for evacuation.

And two things happened. One, much of the blood coming out of Michael Emory's head kept going into Adam Schumann's mouth. And on the day he left the war and all the days since, it's not that he can still taste it, it's that he hasn't been able to stop tasting it.

And the other thing that happened is he was exhausted at the end of these three flights of stairs, and when they finally got Emory — a big guy — on this litter to get him to the Humvee, there's this moment where Adam loses his balance and almost drops Emory on his head.

And years later, there's a part in the book when Emory — who's alive, who shouldn't be but is alive — comes to visit Adam in Kansas. [Emory] just starts making fun of him for almost dropping him and killing him. And it's heartbreaking and it's tender and it's lovely — it just encapsulates so much of the intimate lives that are being played out in all these people trying to recover.

On the availability of treatment programs for veterans

Random is a very good word here. There are three people I write about in this book who go into treatment programs. Tausolo Aieti spent seven weeks in an inpatient PTSD program at a [Veterans Affairs] hospital, so he got the seven-week program.

Another guy I write about, Nic DeNinno, he wanted to get into the VA one, but it was full, so his caseworker looked around and found one in another state that lasted four weeks. Was it as good? Well, it did OK for him, but four weeks is not seven weeks.

And go back to Adam Schumann: Schumann finally reached the point where he knew he needed help. He had to do something. And a caseworker looked at the VA program — full; looked at the four-week program — full; kept looking around and found a program for him in California that there's no insurance mandate, it's not a government program, it's completely donor-supported, small. And that one, it's a minimum four months. So Schumann goes to the four-month program. It was a great program for him. I think it saved his life. And again, he got that one just because the others were full.

On why these soldiers allowed him into their lives

Who knows? I think it's the old thing: They hope that by letting people see their story, people will have some understanding of what's kind of going on rather than glossing over it. I think they were grateful to have someone try to pay attention to them.

On whether he will remain in contact with them

It's up to them. I don't want to impose on them. They've given me a lot of their time. ... I've been thinking about these folks pretty much every day since the beginning of 2007. You know, they're people who matter and I'd very much like to stay in touch.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Here are some of the Iraq war veterans we meet in the pages of reporter David Finkel's new book. One has recurring nightmares where the fellow soldier he couldn't rescue from a burning Humvee keeps asking him, why didn't you save me? Another soldier keeps seeing images of the bodies of dead Iraqis floating in his bathtub. Still another tries to kill himself by biting through his right wrist, the only wrist he can raise to his mouth since his left side is paralyzed.

These are the men of the 2-16 Infantry Battalion, who took part in the surge in Iraq. David Finkel embedded with them there for The Washington Post, which turned into his first book. And now, he's done the same here at home with his latest book, titled "Thank You For Your Service." It's a wrenching, intimate portrait of the psychologically wounded who returned from war.

DAVID FINKEL: Since 9/11, about two and a half million Americans have joined the military. And of the two and a half million, about two million have gone directly into Iraq or Afghanistan. And of those two million, most have come home from their war experiences in good shape. But there's this subset of about half a million people who came home with psychological wounds. And, you know, this is the book for them. It's about what they're going through.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about a few of those, those 500,000 of the psychologically wounded whom you're talking about. One of the soldiers, and he's really the heart of this book, would be Sergeant Adam Schumann who - all these soldiers are based at Fort Riley in Kansas. Sergeant Schumann got a mental health evacuation out of Iraq. You quote from his journal, written at the very end of his stay in Iraq, where he says, I've lost all hope. Darkness is all I see anymore. Tell us about Sergeant Schumann.

FINKEL: Well, at the beginning of the war, that wasn't his diary. It was the diary of anybody filled with a sense of mission and almost idealism. They're going into the war, at what was considered by many people to be the lost moment of the war. And in these guys went from Fort Riley as part of this new thing called the surge.

And Schumann, at that point, was on his third tour. By the time he cracked open, midway through the tour, he had spent about a thousand days in combat. He was regarded throughout his battalion as one of the very best soldiers, and the day came where he just couldn't do it anymore. And he was filled with such a sense of guilt and shame over having to leave the war before the war was done.

And as you said, yeah, he's the main guy in this book that begins two years later. He's home. He's in Kansas with his wife and a new baby. And his wife asks him if - it's the middle of the night. She's exhausted. The baby is a few days old. She asks him if he can hold the baby, and he says, of course. And he takes the baby, she falls asleep. And he falls asleep, too, and the baby rolls out of his arms and over the edge of the bed and the next book is on.

BLOCK: It's interesting. It's something that could happen - probably has happened to any number of couples, right, dropping a child. And in his case, it sets him into a complete tailspin. He drives off with a shotgun.

FINKEL: Pretty much. Exactly. A couple of minutes later, Adam Schumann is in his truck driving around the Kansas countryside, a shotgun pointed at himself, thinking maybe this is the time to die.

BLOCK: One of the many things that causes Adam Schumann to, as you put it, crack open is that he can't get rid of the sense memory of having helped to rescue a fellow soldier who was badly wounded, had a terrible head wound...

FINKEL: Right.

BLOCK: ...carries him down a flight or two of stairs in Iraq...

FINKEL: Right.

BLOCK: ...and there's something that he cannot forget, something he cannot erase from his mind.

FINKEL: Well, there are two things. This was fairly early in the deployment when a guy named Michael Emory was on the rooftop during an operation, and he was shot in the head by a sniper. He had to be evacuated - for some reason, he wasn't dead - and Schumann basically put Emory on his back in a fireman's carry to get him down three flights of stairs to a Humvee for evacuation.

And two things happened. One was much of the blood coming out of Michael Emory's head kept going into Adam Schumann's mouth. And on the day he left the war and all the days since, this is blood he can still - it's not that he can still taste it, it's that he hasn't been able to stop tasting it. And the other thing that happened is he was exhausted at the end of these three flights of stairs.

And when they finally got Emory, a big guy, on this litter to get him to the Humvee, there's this moment where Adam loses his balance and almost drops Emory on his head. And years later, there's a part in the book when Emory comes - who's alive, who shouldn't be but is alive - comes to visit Adam in Kansas. He just starts making fun of him for almost dropping him and killing him. And it's heartbreaking and it's tender and it's lovely. It just encapsulates so much of the intimate lives that are being played out in all these people trying to recover.

BLOCK: Could you tell, David, from the time you spent with these soldiers who were in various kinds of treatment programs - inpatient, outpatient - what works? Or was it completely random and dependent on the soldier or a particular case worker?

FINKEL: Random is a very good word here. There are three people I write about in this book who go into treatment programs. Tausolo Aieti spent seven weeks in an inpatient PTSD program at a VA hospital. So he got the seven-week program. Another guy I write about, Nic DeNinno, he wanted to get into the VA one, but it was full. So his case worker looked around and found one in another state that lasted four weeks. Was it as good? Well, it did OK for him, but four weeks is not seven weeks.

And go back to Adam Schumann. Schumann finally reached the point where he knew he needed help. He had to do something. And a case worker looked at the VA program, full. Looked at the four-week program, full. Kept looking around and found a program for him in California that is not insurance - there's no insurance mandate. It's not a government program.

It's completely donor-supported, small. And that one, it's a minimum four months. So Schumann goes to the four-month program. It was a great program for him. I think it saved his life. And again, he got that one just because the others were full.

BLOCK: The reporting that you managed to do in this book is so remarkably intimate. I mean, you're there when Adam Schumann is having really horrible fights with his wife. You get people to tell you very, very intimate details about their mental state and their attempts at suicide. How did that work? How did you get people to trust you on that level?

FINKEL: I mean, who knows? I think it's the old thing. They hope that by letting people see their story, they'll - people will have some understanding of what's kind of going on rather than glossing over it. And I think they were grateful to have someone try to pay attention to them.

BLOCK: Do you think you're going to be part of these soldiers' lives? Will you stay communicating with them?

FINKEL: Well, it's, you know, it's up to them. I don't want to impose on them. They've given me a lot of their time. I've been - well, I've been thinking about these folks pretty much every day for - since the beginning of 2007. You know, they're people who matter, and I'd very much like to stay in touch.

BLOCK: David Finkel, thanks so much.

FINKEL: Thank you.

BLOCK: David Finkel's new book is titled "Thank You for Your Service." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.