Numbers are bloodless.
They land in our newspapers, scroll across the television feed, quiet and passionless. Two. Seven. 23. By themselves, they’re almost blank. Divorced from meaning.
Add a word: soldiers. Add another: killed. The meaning hits home then. We feel a little. Maybe grieve a little. And then we go on with our days.
These words, these numbers, can’t match the horrifying, unreal reality behind them. Perhaps no words can. But they can try.
Another three words: I dropped him.
For Sgt. Adam Schumann, they summarize the horror of his last tour in Iraq.
A soldier in Adam’s command is shot in the head. Blood and brains leak out of the inch-sized hole, but he’s still alive. Adam picks him up and throws him on his back, carrying the gasping, groaning, bleeding man down a flight of stairs. And another. Blood runs off the injured man’s face and down Adam’s own—down his cheek, his neck, his nose. Into his mouth. He chokes on the blood. Staggers. The man slips. Falls. His head hits the ground with a wet, meaty thud. His eyes stare, vacant, at nothing.
I dropped him.
Those three words haunt Adam Schumann, though he won’t admit it. Not now.
He’s heading home, along with his closest friends, Solo Aieti and Will Waller. They’re the survivors—numbers on a better ledger, you might say. Adam’s returning to his wife and kids, Solo his pregnant wife, Will his beloved fiancée. They joke on the plane and, as they step off, they’re greeted like heroes. All three hope they’re leaving behind their worst memories—
(I dropped him)
—for a better, brighter future. That’s all over now. Tomorrow is another day.
But they don’t step off alone. Their ghosts come with them; what they saw and heard and felt and did. The screams. The smell of burning flesh. The taste of another man’s blood.
These men are casualties of a different kind—men with different wounds. They might look fine at first. But they’re not.
Soldiers like Adam aren’t even a number: There are too many to count.
Thank You for Your Service examines the often-overlooked issue of how we treat our soldiers when they come home. The answer: not as well as we ought, particularly when it comes to their mental health.
This film trains its sights particularly on the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder and the myriad of mental health problems that can result from wartime trauma. Adam, Solo and Will are all good guys with terrible, painful experiences they keep bottled up—until the bottle finally spills or explodes. The film is really intended to be a call to action to help veterans like them find peace with themselves and reintegrate into society, while acknowledging that they’re not the only ones sometimes overlooked by the system. In fact, several scenes feature overwhelmed VA hospitals brimming with needy servicemen of every stripe.
But the movie doesn’t just preach. It effectively takes us into the lives of these soldiers, imbuing each with a sense of humanity and an understanding that they want to do the right thing. It’s just that sometimes, because of their emotional scars, they’re not fully capable of doing so.
Adam’s a standout case. He comes home wanting to be a good husband and father to his wife and kids. We see that effort over and over. But he also wants to protect his wife, Saskia, as much as he can from what he saw and heard. He wants to be strong for the soldiers who still, in their own ways, depend on him. When Will comes home to a life that’s fallen apart, Adam offers his own couch as long as Will needs it. When Solo gets into some seriously bad trouble, Adam comes to his rescue. He’s even willing to put off his own mental health issues to see that his friends get help first. I’m guessing mental health professionals might not agree, but there’s something admirable and sacrificial about his willingness to do that.
Saskia does her best to help her hurting husband. “I’m tougher than you are,” she tells him. “I can take anything you give. Anything but quiet.” It’s hard for her to get through to her stoic husband, but they eventually find a way to work through his issues together.
Someone speaks at a Christian-tinged military funeral. A widow wears a cross around her neck. In flashbacks to Adam’s experiences in Iraq, we see women dressed in burkas.
The first evening that Adam returns, he and his wife have sex. “Oh, yeah, you’re getting laid,” Adam tells her. They kiss and snuggle and they remember when they were “a couple of dumb and horny kids.” Adam says they’re still dumb and horny, and Saskia reminds him that now they have a couple of kids.
When Saskia begins to realize the depths of Adam’s depression and hurt, she buys a slinky nightgown and, essentially, seduces him, hoping to cheer him up. We see the two engaged in sexual activity. But he begins to “hear” war noises and hallucinates about Saskia being shot in the head (imagined blood sprays on the ceiling above), obviously ending their lovemaking.
Will apparently showed Adam and Solo a pornographic video his betrothed had sent him, which they rib him about. (We hear a reference to masturbation as well.) Elsewhere, a naked woman walks around a house. We hear a quip that alludes to gay sex in a church.
I’ve already described in the introduction how one soldier was horrifically wounded. Portions of that scene are repeated later on as well. The man who was shot in the head didn’t actually die: He survived, but lost (we’re told) two inches from part of his brain, and he now sports a sizable scar along the side of his skull.
Other soldiers, both here and abroad, are not so lucky. One apparently burns to death in a Humvee. (We see others pull his charred and smoking body from the vehicle in an effort to save his life.) Another shoots himself in the temple, and we see a spray of blood from a distance. Still another nearly kills himself with a rifle.
A soldier, in the throes of playing a violent, war-based videogame and smelling food burning in the kitchen, goes temporarily insane: He starts breaking things, ripping doors off their hinges and, when his terrified wife locks him out of their bedroom, he begins pounding on the door, eventually breaking it. Another vet recalls how he drove his own girlfriend away: He woke up to find his hands around her neck, preparing to choke her to death. Still another, while on a nighttime hunting trip, sees hallucinations of armed soldiers skulking through the woods. He accidentally falls asleep while his infant son sleeps on his chest: When he rolls over, the baby hits the floor and wakes up, obviously squalling.
Someone gets shot at by automatic weapons and nearly run over. Pit bulls engage in organized fights at an apparent drug den: We see glimpses of two dogs battling, the ring filled with snarling and yelping and blood. The losing animal, still alive but very bloodied, is carried out and laid on the ground, alongside the corpses of other dead fighting dogs. Solo rescues the canine, still living, and he and Adam (gorily) stitch the animal up.
Saskia finds a mental health questionnaire that Adam hid from her, discovering that he’s having suicidal thoughts. The two later go to an Army psychologist together: Adam suggests that finding a job might help him, and the psychologist agrees, telling him that there’s an opening at an artillery range. Saskia’s horrified: Adam wants to kill himself, and you’re sending him to a place filled with rifles? Adam explains that, actually, it’s a tank range, and it’d be pretty difficult for him to commit suicide with a tank.
We hear that Will was “blown up” seven times, surviving each explosion.
Nearly 100 f-words and more than 30 s-words spackle the dialogue. We also hear “d–n,” “h—,” “p-ss,” “f-g” and “n-gger.”
Solo repeatedly says that the Army saved his life, and we get a sense that’s because it got him out of the drug culture. When his wife helps him fill out a mental health evaluation, they come to a question about whether Solo’s drug use ever caused problems in their marriage. Solo insists no, and when his wife reminds him that he was arrested four times for drug possession, Solo reminds her that they weren’t married yet.
When Solo begins desperately searching for ways to self-medicate his PSTD, he dives into some rough streets in search of Ecstasy. He eventually gets some (he sits, stoned on a couch, saying he feels much better), but in return he becomes an errand boy for a very unsavory businessman running guns or drugs or both. He also perhaps drives while impaired.
After Will learns that his fiancée has left him, he goes out with Adam and Solo to a bowling alley, where they all apparently get drunk. Adam and Will return to his house, giggling and still obviously under the influence.
Adam drinks beer at a speedway, and he shares a few cold ones with an injured friend of his.
Adam and his friends must navigate a complex, overwhelmed VA medical system that sometimes seems to care not a whit for them. For instance, when Adam and Solo are standing in line to start the process of getting mental health evaluations, an officer recognizes Adam, walks up to him and tells him to reconsider. “Don’t let these guys see you fold like this,” he says. “It’s bad for morale.” And then, when one of them gets a meeting with an Army captain tasked to help, the captain seems more concerned with ordering steaks online.
Adam vomits after a particularly terrible experience. Adam has to help an injured vet urinate.
We live in a world of numbers. Pick up a newspaper or check your Facebook news feed, and that’s pretty obvious: A $4 trillion budget proposal. A train crash in Finland that left four dead. “Five must-watch LOL cat videos.”
But we are not creatures moved by spreadsheets. We are people of story. Numbers sometimes tell part of a story, but rarely do they get to the heart of it. The guts.
That’s why movies, particularly difficult movies, can be so valuable … and damaging.
The movie tells us that 22 veterans a day commit suicide. I’ve read elsewhere that the suicide rate for vets is 22% higher than it is for civilians, and that the veteran suicide rate has gone up 32.2% since 2001.
Those are important numbers. But Thank You For Your Service gives us a story—based on a real story—that brings weight to today’s sobering statistics and brings them to life. Adam, Solo and Will are more than just statistics. Through story, we see their faces. Feel, in some small way, their pain.
But therein lies the rub.
When we hear a story, it inevitably impacts our own. Sometimes a story like this can inspire or motivate us to positive action. At other times, it pulls us down. It saddles us with language we can’t block out and images we can’t forget. What Adam and Solo experienced in Iraq wounded them, and deeply. Now, we’re being invited to glimpse a hint of those experiences—and perhaps run the risk of a hint of those same wounds.
Stories, especially well-crafted stories, have the power to move us, and that’s a good thing. But sometimes, these stories can move us in directions we don’t want or shouldn’t go. And as such, we should never underestimate their power.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.