Author David Finkel Chronicles Lingering Nightmares Haunting Soldiers of US-Iraq War

Bob Woodruff and Michael Mendelsohn
Newsmakers
Author David Finkel Chronicles Lingering Nightmares Haunting Soldiers of US-Iraq War

When four-star general Peter Chiarelli took up the post as the U.S. Army's vice chief of staff in 2008, it quickly dawned on him that his most difficult challenge would be to reduce the rate at which soldiers were committing suicide.

Two years into Chiarelli's tenure, more military personnel were dying at their own hands than were dying in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. The fact that combat deaths were subsiding might have been celebrated if only it didn't call attention to the problem of returning soldiers nursing psychological traumas that were not being sufficiently treated.

Enter Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Finkel, whose new book, "Thank You for Your Service," chronicles the lives of soldiers returning to America after months and years of conflict, or — just as life-altering — the all-consuming threat of conflict.

Regarding his choice of an ironic title, Finkel says of veterans, "Everyone wants to buy them a drink. Everyone wants to clap them on their back. Everyone wants to say, 'Thank you for your service.' They don't question whether such sentiment is genuine.

A Washington Post writer and editor, Finkel spent eight months in Iraq during one of the war's most turbulent periods in 2007 and 2008, after President George W. Bush had ordered a surge of troops to help quell Iraqi sectarian violence. Finkel wrote about those months in his first book, the 2009 bestseller, "The Good Soldiers."

Embedded with the 2-16 Infantry Battalion out of Fort Riley, Kan., Finkel and the infantrymen were stationed on the front lines in one of the most dangerous suburbs of Baghdad.

"Most of them were 19, 20 years old, deploying for the first time," Finkel told ABC News Anchor Bob Woodruff. "They had a young man's sense of invincibility. They were going to go over and they were going to win the thing."

"And [then] they lost their first guy. And they lost their second guy. And the third guy. And bombs kept going off. And the physical injuries mounted. And the mental degradation began." Invincibility had been replaced "by a deeper understanding of what war turns out to be."

Wary of only telling half a story, Finkel knew he'd need to follow the men home to Kansas. "They started telling me how badly they were doing. I thought that deserved some attention."

As Finkel learned, the mental wounds of war can be just as haunting and debilitating as wounds from a bullet or bomb.

Consider the story of Sgt. Adam Schumann: "A great soldier in this battalion. One of the very best," recounts Finkel.

One day, a buddy of Schumann's—Michael Emory—was shot in the head by a sniper. Schumann put him on his back and lugged his friend down three flights of stairs.

Finkel delicately recalls the nightmare that would lead to Schumann's eventual unraveling. "Some of the blood coming out of Emory's head kept rivering down into Adam Schumann's mouth as he was breathing. So, six months later, when Adam Schumann was leaving the war, one of the reasons was he couldn't stop tasting that blood."

Upon his return to the U.S., Schumann's wife, Saskia, immediately realized the gravity of Schumann's psychic wounds. "As soon as she lays eyes on him … and sees how gaunt and skeletal he's become, she understands that the whole family's now in a serious fight for health," says Finkel.

Indeed, "Thank You for Your Service" deals not only with the scars and recovery efforts of returning soldiers, but the heavy price their families, too, must pay.

The bullet to Emory's head wreaked havoc on the part of his brain that regulates emotions and impulse control. Unable to keep the peace with his wife, they divorce, and she takes their daughter to another state.

Schumann's stateside recovery goes no better since no amount of medication can help him deal with the taste of Emory's blood, or the time he killed an Iraqi and watched him sink away into the mud, or the time he didn't go on a patrol and the soldier that went in his place got killed.

Schumann sometimes places a shotgun next to his head and contemplates suicide. His wife, exhausted by the sad tug-of-war that has now become her life, contemplates divorce. She says of her husband, "He's still a good guy. He's just a broken good guy."

Finkel explains how the Army, not to mention private treatment centers, have at least become a little better — from recent experience — at treating returning soldiers' darkest thoughts, which manifest in panic attacks, insomnia and a host of antisocial behaviors. Schumann, we learn, is fortunate enough to gain entry into a four-month treatment program to alleviate the symptoms of the post-traumatic stress disorder he is diagnosed with.

Still, "these are inconsistent, flawed programs," Finkel reports. "A lot of times instead of sitting down and beginning talk therapy or any kind of cognitive processing therapy … because there's no time, there's no room, there's no opening — these guys are given meds."

When asked how the 800 men of the 2-16 Infantry Battalion view the current, unstable situation in Iraq, Finkel responds, "I can't imagine that very many of them are going through their news feeds looking for what happened in Iraq yesterday. They're done with that part and they're more involved with the war they're in now … the one involving healing here rather than fighting over there."

ABC News' Henry Gretzinger contributed to this episode.