Some conversations have a way of staying with a person—looping in and out of consciousness, changing the framework of perception from that point on. Years ago I was working at a bookstore when such a conversation occurred, and I was shaken out of the dense fog of my youth. I had just apologized to an elderly man waiting in line. He replied that waiting in line was painless compared to digging trenches at Omaha Beach. He had fought the original axis of evil, fended off Hitler’s boot over Europe, and I had giggled like a halfwit, lacking the wherewithal to thank him for his part in dismantling the third reich. I have total faith that he and his compatriots were adequately thanked, even if I failed to acknowledge his part in the epic win over evil.
Thank You for Your Service (2013), written by David Finkel, chronicles the men and women who have signed up with the armed forces in the last ten years, and who arrived home to something very different from collective cultural approval. It reaches above anything political, and documents the pain and frustration these individuals face after leaving the war zones while struggling with PTSD, chemical dependency, and the host of other disorders they were able to mask until they arrived home. It raises the questions: what are we asking of them, and how are we treating them when they return home? Angering and dispiriting, these deeply personal stories seem meant to haunt readers.
While recently visiting family out of state, I noticed my cousin with his coat on, standing apart from everyone, looking lost. My family had been struggling to reach him since he came back from Afghanistan, and felt helpless watching his downward spiral. While catching up on some work, I suddenly looked up from my laptop and blurted out that he had a good heart, and that the world needed more people with heart in it. He squinted at me and looked like he was really seeing me for the first time since I had come home, or maybe it was because I was finally seeing him clearly. Like Finkel’s soldiers, he was struggling out of reach. The narratives assault with such impact because so many have such bleak outcomes, beyond what any of their loved ones can control—mental and physical deterioration, chemical dependency and intolerable rates of suicide.
While there are no clear answers on how to help these individuals, it’s possible the soldiers documented were drowning in plain view, because it is not enough to have just their loved ones fighting for their survival and health. Finkel’s narratives ask us not to just stare because we can’t look away, but to really see their struggles and pain. Culture may not agree on the actions demanded of them, but acknowledging the magnitude of what they experienced could be a step on their journey toward healing. I may not always thank a soldier for their service, but after reading these troubling and withering accounts, I will always think about what their sacrifices mean.