David Finkel, Thank You For Your Service.  Toronto: Bond Street Books, 2013. 

I am slowly working my way through a stack of books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have been published in the last few years.   My hope is that these books will be useful in the ongoing work of my unit, the Canadian Armed Forces Chaplain School and Centre, and that they will better prepare my colleagues to support those, soldiers and their families, who have been touched by war.

Most of these books are about the US experience in the so-called War on Terror, or as journalist Dexter Filkins called it presciently, almost a decade ago, The Forever War.  However, today’s title, while by a US author about US soldiers, seems highly relevant.  As Romeo Dallaire and Carol Off. write in their forwards,  “it could just as easily have been written
about Canadians in Afghanistan”. 

“(T)he after-war
continues, as eternally as war itself” is how David Finkel ends his book, Thank You For Your Service.  For years now, Finkel has dedicated his work
as a journalist to documenting the reality behind the words, “thank you for
your service”, too often uttered by those who know nothing to those who can say
nothing about the horrible things they have seen and done.  In his honest
and unsparing account of ordinary people trying to repair their lives, Finkel reminds
us that the terror continues in what he calls the after-war.  Young men return broken and ashamed, afraid
to tell their partners “stuff” for fear that they will be seen as monsters.  Young women try to find the patience to raise
frightened children and protect them from fathers who have changed.  “As soon as he got home”, one wife says, “he
really wasn’t the same no more at all”.

In an earlier book, The Good Soldiers, Finkel embedded with
a US Army unit tasked with patrolling one of the most violent parts of Baghdad,
“a sorry bomb-filled neighbourhood … (where) the war felt
eventually like the wrong everything”.  These
soldiers would armour up, go through their good-luck rituals, and load into
convoys of lightly armoured Humvees,   never
knowing when they would be blown up.   I reviewed The Good Soldiers here in 2009.  Towards the end of his earlier book, Finkel focused on difficulties of soldiers coming home to the US on leave during their tours. 

He quoted a mental health care specialist who described home as a  “a place of disaster” for most soldiers, whose trips home to the US on leave midway through their tour were not what they expected.   “There’s an anger in guys when they go back. They want to go home and be normal, and they’re not quite normal,” he said, and added, “Coming back from leave is the worst part of the deployment”.  Now, years after the war, home is more than ever a place of disaster.

Thank You For Your Service, Finkel follows some of these same men after their return to the US.  Some came home broken by too many
deployments, having seen too much and feeling too much guilt for comrades shot
or burned to death inside their vehicles.  
The same bonds which held them together would eventually work against
them, for as Finkel writes, “To be a soldier in combat was to full love
constantly”, only to have the loved one killed or shattered or burned before
one’s eyes.

For some of these
returning soldiers, these lost comrades haunt them waking and sleeping, like
one soldier whose friend appears regularly and says “You let me burn”.  For others, the effects of loss, guilt, and
post-traumatic stress are compounded by the physical effects of violence on the
body and especially on the brain. 
Cognitive loss and dementia are just as real to these soldiers as they
are to some professional athletes.   In
this harrowing passage, Finkel describes the long-term effects of such an
injury on a soldier who, years later, cannot remember how to buy flowers for
his wife.

 “Before he got blown
up, he could have figured it out.  How
hard is it to buy roses?  There’s a
flower shop on Fort Riley.  They sell
them at Walmart.  But such are the
effects of being in a Humvee that rolls over three buried 130-millimeter
artillery shells, which explode at the perfect moment.  Up he went, and down he came, and once his
brain was done rattling around from a blast wave that passed through him faster
than the speed of sound, here came the rest of it.  Memory, fucked.  The ability to pay attention, fucked.  Balance. 
Hearing.  Impulse control.  Perception. 
Dreams.  All of it, fucked.  “The signature would of the war” is what the
military calls traumatic brain injury … 

You For Your Service
takes the reader through a labyrinth of damaged bodies
and psyches, and of broken relationships and domestic abuse, that plays out in
bleak neighbourhoods around a military base, or in the offices and clinics of a
bureaucracy hastily-assembled by a military scrambling to understand and cope
with these many unexpected casualties.   
While Finkel is sympathetic to the many military and civilian personnel
struggling to assist these injured veterans and their families, his conclusion,
again and again, is that it is not enough. 
Ordered by the chain of command to analyze each suicide, unit and
brigade leaders struggle to find out if the member has taken mandated suicide
prevention training, as much to cover themselves as to develop lessons
learned.  Well-meaning generals cooperate
with medical researchers to assess risk factors for suicide, but find that
explanations are elusive.  Soldiers are
medicated but cannot find adequate long-term treatment programs.   Wives feel alone and cut off from help.  Families struggle to pay the bills as
unemployable and wounded veterans run through their benefits.   All of these ongoing struggles are what
Finkel calls the “after-war”, as if getting blown up in Baghdad is just the

 This is one of the
most difficult and demanding books I have ever read about contemporary
warfare.   Finkel’s honesty, and the
incredible degree of access he has gained to ordinary and damaged people gives
this book a brutal and stark truth that a hundred war novels and films could
never hope to capture.   It is a book
that demands far more of society than empty slogans and cheap celebration of
its “warriors”.  While Finkel is not
prescriptive in his solutions, he seems to suggest that these veterans demand,
and are owed, far more time, attention and care than they currently
receive.  However, a society that would
pay its debt to these men and women would first have to acknowledge what it
asked them to do, and that admission might prove too difficult.

 We should all read
this book if only to gain a better understanding of how the ongoing physical,
mental and moral injuries of the “after-war” can isolate and oppress those who
have returned to an uncomprehending country that no longer feels like home.   A person of faith will note that there is
next to nothing said here about how faith or spirituality can be resources for
such veterans, a notable absence that should be noted by those chaplains working in the area of spiritual resilience. 

One sees glimpses of
hope and endurance here and there, in the care and love that these broken
soldiers show one another, or in the determination of a few to walk with them
and help them.   As the book ends we see
one family seem to start a new life together, somehow still together after
countless quarrels and fights, but by then we have learned of  many others who never survived the
after-war, having chosen to end their own pain and struggle through suicide.   As a chaplain you will find
no easy answers for ministering to veterans like the ones described here, but
you will better appreciate the reality of the pain and the immensity of the