Soldiers coming home from America's wars overseas have sometimes traded one dangerous environment for another. What's more, they have often gone from a close relationship with a trusted group of friends to an isolated life in which no one seems to understand them.
Journalist David Finkel has watched American soldiers up close in both environments. He was embedded for eight months with a group of soldiers in Iraq, an experience he wrote about in his 2009 book, "The Good Soldiers." Now he has written about the after-war, as these same soldiers try to adjust to life in the United States, in "Thank You For Your Service."
Highlights from his interview with Kerri Miller on The Daily Circuit:
A MENTAL DEGRADATION
"Every war turns out to be what people weren't expecting. These guys really thought that they were invincible, and they thought they were going to win this thing, and they weren't going to get hurt, and then they did. They lost their first guy, they lost their second guy. Where they were, there were too many roadside bombs to find, and they kept going off, so the physical injuries mounted. But the other thing that happened was, you could chart the beginnings of a mental degradation as well. It's indescribable, really, to be in the center of something so astonishing and profound as a terrible moment of war. ... Every war has its fraction, its percentage of guys who come home, who have served well, and have the rest of their lives to try to make sense of who they became in that war."
HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS IN TROUBLE
"I have to be clear about something. This is not a book that dwells in numbers. It's not a policy book, it's not an agenda-driven book. It's these intimate lives unfolding in front of you. But some numbers might be helpful. There are some 2 million Americans, men and women, who have deployed directly into Iraq and Afghanistan. And of the 2 million, the best estimates are that 1.5 million have come home in good shape, mentally, and in some cases ... some of them are better for the experience of having served. That does leave about 500,000 folks who have some type of psychological wound. That's not an insignificant number. ... Some soldiers are broken, and they are trying to get better, and to not pay attention to that ... I think would be a disservice and disrespectful to what they're going through right now."
STRUGGLING WITH STIGMA
"For soldier after soldier, the stigma of acknowledging that you might have something wrong with you mentally, the stigma against saying something out loud, especially in the military, is so strong that it was difficult for these guys to say anything at all. And so many of them said to me, 'You know, I just wish I could look in a mirror and see some representation of a physical injury, something asymmetrical, something missing, a missing leg, a missing arm, something scarred over, because then I could look at myself and firmly believe that something was wrong with me.'"
A HERO'S LASTING GUILT
"There are so many versions of guilt and shame these soldiers and ex-soldiers and family members seem to carry with them. ... There's another soldier we spent time with, a guy named Tausolo Aieti. Terrific soldier. And you sort of hope that if you were in war, at the moment I'm about to describe, you would behave like Tausolo Aieti. He's in a Humvee, five guys in there, it's blown up by a bomb. It blows into the air, sky-high, and it comes down hard. And Tausolo Aieti has a broken leg. He gets out of the car, realizes there are other guys in there who are wounded, and despite his broken leg gets back to the vehicle, helps pull a couple of guys out. But no one gets to the driver, who burns to death. And what happens to Aieti after that is he begins having a dream several times a week. He doesn't tell anybody; he's just dealing with this privately, or thinking he is. It's a dream about the guy who died. And in the dream, the guy's on fire, saying to Tausolo Aieti, 'Why didn't you save me?' So this went on for quite a while, and then Aieti came home, and cracked open and needed help. And here's everyone — everyone — telling him how heroically he acted in the moment, and everyone believes it — except for Aieti. So now his daily life becomes an act of persuasion so he can stop having this dream and think that he acted honorably."
LEARN MORE ABOUT DAVID FINKEL AND VETERANS:
REVIEW: 'Thank You for Your Service,' by David Finkel
Where "The Good Soldiers" provides a snapshot of a period of U.S. involvement in Iraq that will stand the test of time, his new work, "Thank You for Your Service," is a disturbing template for what this country can expect to experience from the people we sent to war who came home different: post-traumatic stress, depression, suicide, domestic abuse, drug and alcohol problems. It is a world of Wal-Marts and money problems with men in their 20s who feel like they are 90 and the wives who try to keep it all together. (Mark Brunswick, Star Tribune)
• Stephen Colbert interviews Finkel on The Colbert Report