One of the more harrowing scenes in David Finkel’s incredible book Thank You For Your Service takes place in Adam Schumann’s basement. It’s the middle of the afternoon. Schumann sits by the furnace, a loaded shotgun under his chin, safety off and his finger on the trigger. As Schumann weeps, his wife Saskia pleads for him not to end his life. At some point—neither of them can remember how much time passes—they hear their young son crying upstairs. That sound pulls Schumann out of the darkness, and he takes his finger off the trigger.
In the new film version of Thank You For Your Service, in which Miles Teller plays the real-life Sergeant Schumann, that scene takes place in Schumann’s pickup truck, and he is alone. It is less excruciating to witness, but it gets the point across: America has an epidemic of veteran suicides.
I suspect the scene as it actually happened in Schumann’s basement was judged too intense for moviegoers. The film is “inspired by true events,” rather than a faithful rendition of Finkel’s nonfiction story, and the departures seem intended to make the film less gut-wrenching.
It’s the chasm that separates films about war from films about life after war. American audiences are happy to watch the violence and gore of war on the big screen. But if a movie portrays how wars never end for the men and women who fight them, we grow queasy and restless. A month after its release, Thank You For Your Service hadn’t made even half of its $20 million budget at the box office.
The film takes pains to instruct the civilian audience about life after war. One character informs us that 22 veterans commit suicide each day on average. Tausolo Aieti, one of Sergeant Adam Schumann’s battle buddies, goes to the VA to ask for help with his acute post-traumatic stress; he’s told his wait will be six to nine months. Billy Waller, another buddy, comes home to a dark, empty house, his bank account drained, his fiancée gone.
Schumann, like so many veterans over the centuries, is haunted by the dead. They appear, screaming, in a cafeteria. In the woods on a nighttime hunting trip, he hallucinates enemy in the dark. Making love to his wife, he suddenly sees the spray of blood from a gunshot erupt from her head. It is the memory of carrying Michael Emory down a flight of stairs in Baghdad after Emory has been shot by a sniper.
Perhaps film is not the right medium to tell a story about the invisible wounds of war. Film is about what you see, and war trauma hides inside the human heart. Aieti and Schumann are stand-ins for so many veterans who wish they’d come home with visible scars from their wars. Would you rather lose an arm than have PTSD? Yes, they agree, they would. Would you rather have a leg blown off? They debate whether it would be above the knee or below.
Combat veterans aren’t the only ones who suffer after war, of course. Their families suffer with them. Tausolo Aieti (played superbly by Beulah Koale) pounds his fists through a door, his pregnant girlfriend barricaded behind. He’d been playing a first-person shooter video game designed to look like the urban combat he’d just come home from. Anger is the body’s instinctive emotion for survival. Angry soldiers live longer and destroy more enemy. That anger doesn’t disappear when soldiers leave the battlefield.
There’s a lot the film leaves out, like the fact that Adam Schumann was on his third deployment. Eight months into his final 15-month deployment, the super soldier finally succumbed. Physically uninjured but mentally shattered, Adam Schumann leaves Iraq in a medevac. The humiliation and despair for abandoning his brothers is crushing. Adam Schumann had been in combat for 1,000 days. S.L.A. Marshall, the chief U.S. Army historian during World War II and Korea, concluded that 200 days of combat exposure results in 100 percent psychological casualties.
The most poignant scene in the film for me wasn’t Schumann’s putting his shotgun under his chin. It wasn’t his terrible race down the stairs in Iraq carrying Emory with a bullet hole in his head, his brother’s blood running into his mouth. Instead it was a scene inside a bar in Kansas. Schumann, Aieti, and Billy Waller are together again. Aieti plays Haddaway’s pulsing dance song “What Is Love?” on the jukebox. The men leap like tribesmen around a bonfire. They form a tight circle, a triple hug, jumping in sync. It is the one moment in the film of pure joy.
What is love? the song lyrics ask. It is before us, the bond among brothers in arms. The Greeks called it philia. For a few moments in that bar in Kansas, the tribe is together again. But it cannot remain. They must leave each other for a house in the suburbs and a family struggling to endure. Their war in Iraq is over. Their new, more difficult, war has just begun.
Jeb Wyman is the editor of What They Signed Up For: True Stories by Ordinary Soldiers, published by Blue Ear Books.