The Pulitzer Prize winner discusses PTSD, the difficulties of returning home from the front lines, and the “haphazard system” of care available to Americans veterans.
Photo by Lucian Perkins
For his 2009 book, The Good Soldiers, David Finkel spent a year embedded in the 2-16 infantry battalion bearing witness to life at the frontlines of the 2007 surge in Iraq. While there is no shortage of works, both laudatory and excoriating, describing America’s long decade in Iraq, his was among the first to document it from the vantage of those on the ground. Finkel followed the day-to-day ins and outs of duty, staying alive, and staying sane in a hot spot.
In Thank You for Your Service, Finkel writes: “every war has its afterwar, and so it was with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have created some five hundred thousand mentally wounded American veterans.” To approach that number and reckon with its consequences, Finkel revisits many of the 2-16 infantrymen, now returned home and trying to resume their lives and recover. In much the same style as his 2009 book, Finkel works through deep observation, tracking struggling veterans, families on edge, and professionals trying in earnest to make do with a haphazard system of care.
“I’m not naïve enough to think that this will effect anything like war policy in the country,” Finkel says in the interview that follows. “But I do think it can have a smaller effect—not on the war, but on the afterwar, the thing that’s going on now.”
A staff writer for the Washington Post, Finkel is also the recipient of a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for a series of reports on the United States failed experiments in democracy in Yemen, as well as a 2012 MacArthur “genius” Award for his “finely honed methods of immersion reporting and empathy for often-overlooked lives.” We met in New York City, where Finkel was visiting from his native DC.
—Katherine Rowland for Guernica
Guernica: Thank You for Your Service is now referred to as a sequel to The Good Soldiers, but did you have the project in mind originally?
David Finkel: No, no. I was done, and that first book was hard. I mean it was hard personally and I was glad to be finished. But after I did finish and people began contacting me—not just soldiers but also family members—talking about the cracks that were beginning to appear, the creeping feelings of anxiousness, in some cases depression, in a few cases suicidal ideation, it reached a point where it dawned on me that I had not written the full story. I had written half the story, and as long as I had the first, I had to finish the thing. So I did.
They may have had in their imagination some thought of what they were getting into, but they didn’t know what war was and they didn’t know what the afterwar was and now so much of their lives seems to be reactive.
Guernica: When you set out to research the second book, were you prepared for the depth of emotional pain and suffering you encountered?
David Finkel: Just like in the first book, I wasn’t prepared. I thought I knew what war was because I had covered wars for the paper I work at. But I didn’t know what I was getting into. I had grown up in a family with some psychological issues and have a close relative who spent a few years working hard to stay alive. So I thought I knew something about it, but you don’t really know what you’re getting into until you’re deep in it. I’ve spent a few years with these people, and not just visiting them but really being present with them… I don’t know, can something be heartbreaking and exhilarating at the same time? I’m very moved by how hard these families keep trying and I felt pretty broken at times by how hard it is for them. None of them asked for this. They may have had in their imagination some thought of what they were getting into, but they didn’t know what war was and they didn’t know what the afterwar was and now so much of their lives seems to be reactive—they’re reacting to things they didn’t expect and what they’re hoping to do is just regain some sense of control. You can argue we all are, but it’s really profound in their case.
Guernica: Adam Schumann, a returned vet who is a husband and father, is really a through line in the book. How did he become such a central figure?
David Finkel: The first book involved spending almost a year in Baghdad with this infantry battalion and I was asking around: who’s a great soldier and who do I need to talk to. And this guy pointed and said, “Adam Schumann, he’s one of the best.” By the time I caught up with him, he had, after three tours in the war and a thousand days in combat, cracked open and was on his way home. He was only a few pages in the first book, but he stuck with me, and when I decided to do the second volume about the afterwar, he’s the guy I wanted to pursue the most. There was just something about him, and I figured my curiosity in the development about how someone is doing could translate pretty well into a book.
There’s a line in the book about how if the truth of war is that you end up being it for the guy next to you, the truth of the afterwar is that you’re pretty much on your own. One chapter really explores that. It begins with Adam Schumann trying to build a boat and then he’s visited by another lonesome character from the war and they spend the weekend fishing together. At the end of it, Adam is by himself up in a tree, just trying to stave off everything he knows is coming his way.
Guernica: You’re witnessing these events as they happen. How did you gain such intimate access into these people’s lives?
David Finkel: It’s a complicated question. Credibility came up more in the first book, because this battalion didn’t know what a journalist was. They thought I had an agenda, they thought I was out to paint them a particular way, and over time—not in all cases, but in many cases—they realized what this attempt at journalism was about. It was trying to get to their truth, rather than to use them to promote my truth. I came out of the book with some credibility. These people knew me: I was with Schumann as he left the war. There’s a guy I write about, Tausolo Aieti, who I happened to be with the day he was blown up. There’s a guy named Michael Emory, who I was with when he was shot in the head. I knew these folks.
There is a pretty big population of mentally wounded people. Most aren’t, most are OK, but there is a still a significant population. How do you take this population of perhaps half a million people and try to give them some kind of narrative structure? There are any number of ways to do it. I chose was to start with Adam Schumann and build out from there. In other words, I was describing a cluster of people who are all related in some way to each other through the experience of war—they know each other or they have contact with each other—and in writing about that cluster maybe it would seem emblematic of all the various clusters across the country. Once that decision was made, it became a matter of going out there, meeting these people again, telling them what I was up to, and being very forthcoming and transparent about my methods and intentions.
Guernica: How did you express your intentions?
David Finkel: If they hadn’t seen the first book, I gave them a copy. I described the way I work: that I don’t tend to visit, I tend to stay a long time. I explained that they could not be editors of the book or in any way be seen as censors, that they wouldn’t see what I was writing about them until the book was published. So it required some faith on their part; they had to come up with a reason for doing this. I wasn’t going to supply them with a reason, and I asked them to think it over. If they said yes: great, off we went. If they said no: that’s a perfectly reasonable decision. But they all said yes, for their own reasons.
I had outlined it clearly enough so that I was just going to be there and be present. And they were all pretty great about it. It’s not like I go away entirely, but eventually I do become the guy in the back seat who they’re not even thinking about as they go about their lives in the front seat, which includes some pretty intimate, brutal encounters.
Guernica: A number of scenes in the book follow Adam and his wife Saskia in their car as they’re fighting, or trying to cope and find treatment. Were you literally in the back seat for those moments?
David Finkel: Sure. Almost everything in the book I was present for. I have one move: to be there. There’s plenty of stuff to supplement personal observation in this book. There are diaries, there are documents, there are psychological reports. But the primary thing I do is based on observed reporting. Not interviewing, just being present.
Guernica: What about on the institutional side of the military? How did you gain access there?
David Finkel: On the first book, I got access through a lot of lucky breaks. I told the commander of that battalion that I didn’t have an agenda. This was not a first person book; it was describing the corner of the war that his soldiers were occupying. I wasn’t going to say that war is good or bad, that the surge was won or lost; that wasn’t my intent. It was to use the war to write about the character of these young men. And he said, if that’s your promise and you keep your promise, my promise to you is you can have full run on what we’re doing. And he was as good as his word. Now it helped that we were put in a part of Baghdad that was kind of lousy, kind of small. There was no public affairs officer. I have had good ones in the past and I’ve had bad ones, but there was none present here, so I was kind of on my own. It worked really well.
Guernica: In this book, we’re introduced to the official side of the military through the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, Peter Chiarelli, who is investigating the rise of suicides. What was access like there?
David Finkel: I’ve been a reporter for a long time and I think Chiarelli is one of the most fascinating people I’ve come across. I wish I could have made him a larger figure in the book. I think he was game, but he was surrounded by a staff that protected him to the point where I just wasn’t getting enough access. I had plenty of people to write about, so with regrets I gave up on how far I could bring him as a character into the book. I feel badly about that. I think Chiarelli is an amazing guy—complicated—and the book could have benefited at the highest levels from a further exploration of him, but I couldn’t get there.
Guernica: There’s been a lot of recent attention to rising rates of suicide and PTSD related to the armed service. Did you get a sense in working on this book that there is a cogent understanding of why that’s the case?
David Finkel: I think there were some remarkable attempts to understand it, but just like in civilian society I don’t think anyone has a perfect understanding of this. There are so many complicated factors. One of the things that was interesting was when Chiarelli, representing the military, would come up against scientists. Chiarelli would say, let’s just try something, give me something. And the scientists would say, that’s not good science. We’re not going to give you something we’ve figured out only partially because that could be an actual danger. There were plenty of tensions from people you could argue all had good intentions—but that doesn’t mean they squared up with each other.
Big bureaucratic systems are big bureaucratic systems. Chiarelli’s intent was to change the culture of the army, as he kept saying. But if you call him up, he’d say, no I didn’t change the culture of the Army. I tried to, maybe I influenced some people under me, who influenced some people under them, who knows. But I was very moved by the trying, that’s what kept getting to me again and again.
Guernica: Did you see anything you felt really worked in terms of providing services attending to the psychological needs of this population?
David Finkel: It’s a pretty haphazard system. I saw one guy go into a four week program, another go into a seven week program, another go into a program minimum of four months. It’s not that each was sent to one of those programs because it was the best for his individual needs or the family needs, but because there was an opening. The four month program is entirely donor supported, and that can’t work as a model in this country. There are just too many people asking for help.
Here’s a chance to personalize the idea of a disorder, the statistics that we hear.
Guernica: And the guy who ran that program got a ten thousand dollar donation in the mail to keep the doors open.
David Finkel: To keep it going he’s crossing his fingers day to day. The others are more of an HMO model, with stays of limited duration. If I were to reach the point where I could finally acknowledge needing help, I would want to go to the place where I had the best shot at recovery, and that’s not necessarily the case. They’re just slogging through this haphazard system.
These were folks who in some cases if they got out, had no job to return to. The economy was awful, so the best thing to do was leave a memorial ceremony and hold up your right hand and agree to stay in for another four to six years.
Guernica: I recently interviewed George Packer for this magazine, and it struck me that aspects of his book on the unraveling of the American Dream are resonant in yours. In particular, these vets are returning to a country that’s in the middle of a hollow recovery post-recession and people are struggling to stay afloat. How do these economic conditions shape soldiers’ ability to resume and rebuild their lives?
David Finkel: When I was doing the first book, even on bad days over there, there would be re-enlistment ceremonies. A guy would come from a memorial ceremony for a guy who had died, and then that night would re-enlist, and at that point it wasn’t because anyone was still filled with a great sense of patriotism or mission, but that the army needs to hit its numbers in a volunteer force and they were offering signing bonuses of 20,000 dollars to 30,000 dollars. If you do it while you’re still in Iraq, it is tax free. These were folks who in some cases if they got out, had no job to return to. The economy was awful, so the best thing to do was leave a memorial ceremony and hold up your right hand and agree to stay in for another four to six years. It doesn’t make them victims necessarily; we all make choices based on the options we have, and that’s the choice they made. But the choice in part was guided by the economy.
Now, a lot of these folks need help and they don’t necessarily come from New York or Washington where there are plenty of therapists and psychologists lined up ready to help. They come from parts of the country where the waiting times can be quite long. It’s not to diminish the interior of the country, because there are plenty of great therapists, but I think everybody would agree that the choices are a little bit fewer in some places. So you end up getting help from whoever you can get help from—at whatever time frame they’re capable of helping you. To me, some of what Packer talked about you can see in these characters.
Guernica: Have the characters read the most recent book?
David Finkel: They’re just starting to. As of last night, I had heard from three of them. Adam Schumann said he had got it and he doesn’t know if he’ll ever read it; he just doesn’t know if he can. Another guy in the book got it and texted me to say he was reading the first chapter. It was a succession of texts, and the first one said, I’m crying. The next one said, I’m laughing. The next one said, this is messing me up too much, I’m not sure I’ll make it to chapter two. And then last night I got a call from one of the women in the book, Patti Walker, a caseworker, who said she had read the whole thing, and that it rang true to her and she learned a few things as well.
Guernica: Your description of Patti was quite powerful. As a caseworker during the day, she oversees forty-nine mentally wounded vets, and then at night, she goes home to her wounded husband. Thinking about people like Patti, do you have any hopes for the outcome of the book on a social level?
David Finkel: I’m not naïve enough to think that this will effect anything like war policy in the country. But I do think it can have a smaller effect—not on the war, but on the afterwar, the thing that’s going on now. It’s not that people aren’t paying attention, but here’s a chance to personalize the idea of a disorder, the statistics that we hear. There was a line in one of the reviews of the first book, something like: you can take this book off the shelf and read it and think, this is what happened and this is how it felt. I would like to think that this book will do that for the afterwar. This is what’s happening and this is how it feels. If people can read it and come away liking these characters—feeling some of what they’re going through—that’s satisfactory.
To contact Guernica or David Finkel, please write here.