Thank You for Your Service
Sarah Crichton Books, 2013
272 pp., $26.00
"Thank You for Your Service"
On June 14, 1911, the largest ship in the world left the docks in Southampton, 80 miles southwest of London, on her maiden voyage to America. Topped by four smokestacks and stretching nearly three football fields long, the imposing vessel sailed first to Cherbourg, directly across the English Channel in France, then to Queenstown, Ireland, then through the iceberg-filled Arctic Ocean to New York City.
The seven-day voyage to New York was uneventful. The Olympic was the first of three new liners that would be sailing between the Southampton and New York City. During World War I, the Olympic carried troops and cargo in support of the war. Then she remained in service as an ocean liner until1935, when the Depression and competition made large ships much less profitable.
Her sister ship, the Britannic, launched in 1914, had brief pre-war service as a passenger ship, and then was refitted as a hospital ship for the war. It was sunk by a mine in 1916. The third Olympic-class ship was launched in 1912. Its maiden voyage was cut short by an iceberg, as were the lives of most of its passengers.
Never heard of the Olympic or the Britannic? Nor have most of us. But we have all heard of the other sister ship. The voyage of the Titanic is as well known in Beijing as it is in Brisbane, Bangalore, and Baltimore.
The soldiers in David Finkel's book Thank You for Your Service are the Titanic. If War is Hell, Finkel shows the reader of this grim book that life after war can be as bad as—or even worse than—war itself. Finkel's relentless chronicle of two surviving soldiers, two soldiers who take their own lives, the widow of a soldier killed in Iraq, and the soldiers' families left me exhausted.
In addition to following the lives of enlisted soldiers and their families in the aftermath of war, Finkel takes us to the top of the Army's chain of command for a look at how the vice chief of staff of the Army leads the effort to cut the suicide rate among soldiers. He also shows us the people trying to help soldiers or get help for them.
If Finkel wrote a similar book about Olympic-class vessels, it would chronicle a half-dozen survivors and a widow from the Titanic along with a few of the people trying to help them.
It would be easy for most readers to come away from this book angry at the Veterans Administration, or at Congress, or the President, or anyone else who is supposed to be caring for the veterans of our wars. I am a soldier and the father of three women in their early 20s. In those very conflicting roles, I am happy the women in the lives of the soldiers in this book stood by their men when they came back from Iraq depressed, abusive, and dangerous to everyone around them. But in at least two cases, the father in me was hoping those abused wives would take their children and run.
The wrenching problems Finkel documents so well have a larger context that this book does not address. When I told my wife about this book, her first reaction was, "You came back so normal." We really hadn't talked about it much, but it was clear she was and is relieved that I did not return depressed, sad, angry, lonely, bitter, or lost—one or more of these would be an average-to-good day for the soldiers and their families in Finkel's book.
The significance of the title of this book deserves its own examination. People who live in the most populated parts of America have little contact with soldiers, except to say "Thank you for your service" in an airport or a restaurant.
People walk up to me in airports and restaurants and thank me for my service. They buy my coffee at Starbucks. They smile. This may seem trivial. But I first enlisted in 1972, during the Viet Nam war, three months before my draft number came up. I was 18. Less than two years later, with the draft ended and the war winding down, I flew home in uniform. My right hand and right eye were bandaged. My face was swollen from the bits of metal still lodged in my skin. I would fully recover after being blinded and peppered with shrapnel in a live-fire missile testing accident.
No one in Logan Airport, Boston, thanked me for my service.
One of the heart-wrenching scenes in the book takes place in Warrior Transition Battalion. The WTB is the place where veterans who are not ready for civilian life get the services they need to rejoin civilian life, or at least try to get those services. Tausolo Aieti, one of the soldiers the book follows in his recovery, avoids the funeral of a 21-year-old soldier in the WTB who took his own life. We get a brief report of the service in the chapel. During the service, one of the eulogists steps to the podium and "declares in the most mystified voice, 'What is there to say at this point except thank you for your service?' "