Nonfiction

The Chilling Aftermath of War

An excerpt from David Finkel's shattering Thank You For Your Service


On January 22, David Finkel and Roxana Robinson appeared at The Center in our Fact & Fiction series. Watch the video of the event here. Robinson's critically acclaimed novel Sparta and Finkel's nonfiction Thank You For Your Service both deal with the Iraq war's devastating aftermath at home. An excerpt from Finkel's book:


 

Two years later: Adam drops the baby.

 

The baby, who is four days old, is his son, and there is a moment as he is falling that this house he has come home to seems like the most peaceful place in the world. Outside is the cold dead of 3:00 a.m. on a late- November night in Kansas, but inside is lamplight, the warm smell of a newborn, and Adam’s wife, Saskia, beautiful Saskia, who a few minutes before had asked her husband if he could watch the baby so she could get a little sleep. “I got it,” he had said. “I got it. Get some rest.” She curled up in the middle of their bed, and the last thing she glimpsed was Adam reclined along the edge, his back against the headboard and the baby in his arms. He was smiling, as if contentment for this wounded man were possible at last, and she believed it enough to shut her eyes, just before he shut his. His arms soon relaxed. His grip loosened. The baby rolled off of his chest and over the edge of the bed, and here came that peaceful moment, the baby in the air, Adam and Saskia asleep, everyone oblivious, the floor still a few inches away, and now, with a crack followed by a thud, the moment is over and everything that will happen is under way.

 

Saskia is the one who hears it. It is not loud, but it is loud enough. Her eyes fly open. She sees Adam closed—eyed and empty—armed, and only when he hears screaming and feels the sharp elbows and knees of someone scrambling across him does he wake up from the sleep he had promised he didn’t need. It takes him a second or two. Then he knows what he has done.

 

He says nothing. There is nothing he can say. He is sorry. He is always sorry now. He has been sorry for two years, ever since he slunk home from the war. He watches his wife scoop up the baby. He keeps watching, wishing she would look at him, willing her to, always so in need of forgiveness, but she won’t. She clutches the crying baby as he dresses and leaves the room. He sits for a while in the dark, listening to her soothe the baby, and then he goes outside, gets into his pickup truck, and positions a shotgun so that it is propped up and pointed at his face. In that way, he starts driving, while back in the house, Saskia is trying to understand what happened. A crack. A thud. The thud was the floor, and thank God for the ugly carpet. But what was the crack? The bed frame? The nightstand?

 

This baby. So resilient. Breathing evenly. Not even a mark. Somehow fine. How can that be? But he is. Maybe he is one of the lucky ones, born to be okay. Saskia lies with him, then gets up and comes back with a plastic bottle of water. She drops it from the side of the bed and listens to the sound it makes as it hits the floor.

 

She drops a pair of heavy shoes and watches them bounce.

 

She finds a basketball and rolls it off the edge.

 

She fills a drink container with enough water to weigh about as much

as the baby, and as Adam continues driving and considering the gun, not yet, not yet, not yet, not yet, she rolls that off the edge, too.

 

                                                            ***

 

Two years. He is twenty-eight now, 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, it is still the day he headed home. 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 declared dead another soldier is saying to him, “None of this shit would have happened if you were there.” It was said as a soldier’s compliment—Adam had the sharpest eyes, Adam always found the hidden bombs, everyone relied on Adam—but that wasn’t how he heard it then or hears it now. It might as well have been shrapnel, the way those words cut him apart. 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, who they root for, smart, decent, honorable, good instincts, that one. And now? “I feel completely broken,” Adam says.

 

“He’s still a good guy” is what Saskia says. “He’s just a broken good guy.”

 

She says it as an explanation of why on some days she has hope that he will once again be the man he was before he went to war. It’s not as if he caused this. He didn’t. It’s not as if he doesn’t want to get better. He does. On other days, though, it seems more like an epitaph, and not only for Adam. All the soldiers he went to war with—the 30 in his platoon, the 120 in his company, the 800 in his battalion—came home broken in various degrees, even the ones who are fine. “I don’t think anyone came back from that deployment without some kind of demons they needed to work out,” one of those soldiers who was with Adam says.

 

“I’m sure I need help,” another says, after two years of night sweats and panic attacks.

 

“Constant nightmares, anger issues, and anytime I go into a public place I have to know what everyone is doing all the time,” another of them says.

 

“Depression. Nightmares of my teeth falling out,” another says.

 

“I get attacked at home,” another says. “Like I’m sitting in my house and I get attacked by Iraqis. That’s how it works. Weird-ass dreams.”

 

“It has been more than two years, and he’s still beating me,” the wife of another says. “My hair is falling out. I have a bite scar on my face. Saturday he was screaming at me about how I was a fucking bitch because I didn’t have the specific TV he wanted hooked up.”

 

“Other than that, though,” the one who might be in the best shape of all 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.

 

“I have to admit a day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about those days, the boys we lost, and what we did,” another says. “But life goes on.”

 

Out of one war into another. Two million Americans were sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Home now, most of them describe themselves as physically and mentally healthy. They move forward. Their war recedes. Some are even stronger for the experience. But then there are the others, for whom the war endures. Of the two million, studies suggest that 20 to 30 percent have come home with post-traumatic stress disorder—PTSD—a mental health condition triggered by some type of terror, or traumatic brain injury—TBI—which occurs when a brain is jolted so violently that it collides with the inside of the skull and causes psychological damage. Depression, anxiety, nightmares, memory problems, personality changes, suicidal thoughts: every war has its after- war, and so it is with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have created some five hundred thousand mentally wounded American veterans.

 

How to grasp the true size of such a number, and all of its implications, especially in a country that paid such scant attention to the wars in the first place? One way would be to imagine the five hundred thousand in total, perhaps as points on a map of America, all suddenly illuminated at once. The sight would be of a country glowing from coast to coast.

 

And another way would be to imagine them one at a time, starting with the one who is out in the middle of a Kansas night, driving around and around unseen. Toward dawn, he returns home. He doesn’t mention to Saskia where he has been, or what he had been thinking, and she doesn’t ask. Instead, the shotgun is put away, the baby awakens for his next feeding, their other child, who is six and anxious and has begun wetting her bed, awakens after doing so again, and a breaking family whose center has become Adam’s war wounds gets on with another day of trying to recover, followed by another day after that.

 


Excerpted from Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel, published in 2013 by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by David Finkel. All rights reserved.

JOIN NOW > CONTRIBUTE >

GET OUR UPDATES

 

David Finkel is a journalist and author whose most recent book, the critically acclaimed Thank You For Your Service, chronicles the challenges faced by American soldiers and their families in the aftermath of war. His previous book, The Good Soldiers, was the bestselling account of the U.S. “surge” during the Iraq War and a New York Times Best Book of the Year.

An editor and writer for The Washington Post, Finkel has reported from Africa, Asia, Central America, Europe, and across the United States, and has covered wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Among Finkel’s honors are a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2012. He lives in the Washington, D.C. area.

 

David Finkel is a journalist and author whose most recent book, the critically acclaimed Thank You For Your Service, chronicles the challenges faced by American soldiers and their families in the aftermath of war. His previous book, The Good Soldiers, was the bestselling account of the U.S. “surge” during the Iraq War and a New York Times Best Book of the Year.

 

An editor and writer for The Washington Post, Finkel has reported from Africa, Asia, Central America, Europe, and across the United States, and has covered wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

 

Among Finkel’s honors are a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2012. He lives in the Washington, D.C. area.

- See more at: http://www.centerforfiction.org/calendar/fact-amp-fiction-david-finkel-and-roxana-robinson/#sthash.Oj92G4DQ.dpuf