Thank You For Your Service comes from first time director Jason Hall (who wrote American Sniper and played Devon MacLeish in Buffy). It’s based on the book of the same name by Pulitzer Prize winner and Washington Post investigative journalist David Finkel. Finkel had written a book called The Good Soldiers that chronicled the lives of soldiers in Baghdad for two years, and in the sequel, Thank You for Your Service, he wanted to follow those same soldiers when they returned home from Iraq. Adam Schumann was one of the soldiers he followed, and it’s his story that is fictionalized and transformed into Thank You for Your Service.
The years after service aren’t pretty, and while we hear a lot about PTSD, and politicians pay a lot of lip service to veterans, it’s clear that that’s mostly all it is: Lip service. There are plenty of exceptions, I’m sure, but for the most part, joining the military does not change one’s socioeconomic status. Most of those who fought in Iraq came from poor and working class homes, and when they come back from Iraq, they return to those same poor and working class families with no better job prospects than before, although they do have the added weight of PTSD, missing limbs, and brain injuries. We wave our flags and honor our service men and women, but the situation for a lot veterans is dire. The suicide rates among young veterans since 2001 has soared, and an estimated 13 to 20 percent of the 2.6 million veterans who deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan come home suffering from PTSD.
Thank You for Your Service seeks to tell the story of those soldiers, using three Kansas vets (based on real people) to represent that struggle. It’s rough and harrowing, and I’ll tell you right now that one of the three blows his brains out the morning after coming home to find that his fiancée had cleaned him out and left him. He got off easy. The other two, Adam Schumann (Miles Teller) and Solo (Beulah Koale), were left behind with nothing but psychological scars, memory loss, anger issues, suicidal ideation, and very little in the way of a support system by an overrun Veteran Affairs office.
Schumann has two kids, a wife, and a death wish, and he’s the strong one. Solo? That guy is just f*cked. He can barely remember the date, and the job prospects for both of them are grim. Their wives (Haley Bennett and Keisha Castle-Hughes, respectively) are supportive in the best way they know how to be, but what these men need is months and months of counseling and therapy and an income to help support their families while they attempt to recover from something that cannot be treated, only managed. Unfortunately, there’s a backlog of hundreds of thousands of veterans looking for counseling, so the big victory, the win in Thank You for Service, is not a steady job and a happily ever after; it’s locating a treatment center with an available bed.
It’s a bleak and depressing film, one of those issue movies that you should see rather than want to see. It’s not entertaining. It’s not fun. It’s well-directed, well-written, and well-acted, and though I know you’re aching to make fun of Miles Teller here, this is not really the place (I know there’s a dozen people who want to change the headline to “Puts a Very Real (Punchable) Face to PTSD,” but please resist the urge!). This movie is bigger than him; he turns in a fine performance, but Thank You for Your Service is bigger than one guy’s performance. It’s a $20 million Hollywood vehicle for raising awareness for an issue that needs to be raised.
I mean, there’s a lot going on in the world right now: Our government is stripping away hard-earned civil rights; cops are killing black people; the First Amendment is coming under attack; and men are sexually assaulting women in every profession. This issue shouldn’t be forgotten, however. I mean: I’m not a jingoistic guy. I don’t have a lot of patriotic fervor, but it’s hard to reconcile our country’s indifference to the men and women who sacrificed their lives, their bodies, and their mental facilities to fight in never-ending wars that Presidents from both parties have sent them into, under the guise of protecting our (eroding) freedoms. I mean, if we’re going to send them over there, the least we can do is help them readjust when they return. Instead of investing $3 billion in a new fighter jet, maybe — I dunno — use that money to invest in the lives of those who fly them.
That’s what’s really at the heart of Thank You for Your Service. It’s not a war film. In many ways, it’s just about struggling people struggling to find help. It’s about battling the bureaucracy, about underfunded veterans affairs offices, and about how America puts on a big show for our veterans, but when it comes to actually helping the families that sacrifice the most, the best we can offer are piles of forms and months-long waiting periods. In war, at least, these men and women have achievable tasks and the support of their fellow servicemen and women; at home, they’re left alone to fight the Sisyphean bureaucracy, which drives them to suicide as much as their emotional battle scars.
Post Script for Those Who Have Seen the Movie: The real-life Adam Schumann is doing OK today. He’s been doing the press rounds for the last few weeks, talking about his experiences. He and Saskia have divorced, and he lives in an apartment by himself, but he gets the kids every other week. He also still has that dog! He also did some peer counseling for a while at the Pathways Treatment Center. Now, he spends his time hunting and fishing. “It’s taken some time, but I’m finally back to it. Do I have a house with a white picket fence and a wife and kids and everybody’s happy? No, but my kids are happy, I’m happy, the dog’s happy. Everything’s OK,” he tells The Chicago Tribune. I think that’s as much a victory as anyone can expect, ten years after being sent home from his third deployment due to PTSD.