In “Thank You For Your Service” All Vets Are Broken

Two nights ago I saw the movie Thank You For Your Service – not out of a burning desire to see the movie, but because we’d driven quite a ways to the theater and it was the only movie showing that night with decent seats available.

The movie follows three soldiers upon their return from Iraq in 2007, and it’s based on a book written by David Finkel. I have not read his book, but my understanding is that the movie follows real-life soldiers Finkel knew and wrote about after their deployment.

I have a number of issues with the movie, none of which are related to the title and my previously published feelings regarding that phrase. Instead, I base my issues with the movie on my own experiences in Iraq in 2006 and my readjustment to civilian life following my exit from the military.

In the movie we see these three soldiers after coming home – well, four, technically – dealing with their wives, girlfriends, jobs, stresses, and injuries both physical and mental. We are painted a simple picture.

All vets are broken.

One vet has flashbacks and comes close to suicide. One vet commits suicide after finding that his fiancée has left him (and “cleaned him out”) during deployment. One vet has memory problems resulting from a traumatic brain injury, gets a “job” with a drug/arms dealer, and his violent physical outbursts leads his wife to call the police. The last vet, who plays a small on-screen role in the movie but a large role in the plot, is physically crippled and living in squalor and filth.

Even in the VA waiting room scene, clearly driven by events in the public narrative, we only see more injured and broken veterans.

If the movie only gets one thing right, it is that reconnecting with others one served with overseas can heal old wounds. But the list of what it gets wrong is voluminous, from minor details like soldiers in Iraq in 2007 driving around without eye protection to someone being called a hero because he was awarded two ARCOMs and an AAM (medals that basically mean he showed up and didn’t kick any puppies, at least not that anyone saw). That particular bit caused us to start laughing out loud in the theater.

The big picture items that the movie misses are that not all post-9/11 veterans need in-patient psychological treatment (literally every veteran in this movie is shown as needing long-term in-home care or in-patient psych care) and that we are fully capable of reintegrating with society even when we do seek treatment in all of the various forms in which it is available to us.

We don’t need to be looked at like we’re all at risk of suicide. The oft-quoted statistic that 22 veterans per day commit suicide (this is even mentioned in the movie) leaves out some very important details. If you were to ask the people making all of these videos “raising awareness” about the statistic, I’d be willing to bet they believe the majority of these suicides are committed by young veterans recently returned from war.

That is incorrect.

For example, 65% of veteran suicides in 2014 were over the age of 50. Contrast this with the very public suicide of the roughly 20 year old young soldier in the movie, which, I believe, was not described in this manner in the book, and the near-suicide of another vet in the movie who is clearly in his 20s. While it cannot be said that younger veterans are not killing themselves, I fear that too much focus on this issue is leaving the general public with the impression that any young veteran is at vastly higher risk of suicide.

A TV host interviewing the director of the movie asked him if there was “still hope for these guys” – as if we’ve all been afflicted by a terminal disease or that the instant our boots touched foreign soil we were without a future.

The simple fact is that even when lumped in with all other males of all age groups, male veterans are only at a slightly increased risk of suicide, their rate being 18% higher than the general population. When age differences are taken into account, we see that the suicide rate of veterans practically mirrors that of the civilian population. Especially when we look at the active and reserve military components, the differences may be erased entirely.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t be addressing suicide and helping veterans in need – something that can be done, at least in part, very effectively by veterans helping one another. We might start by addressing the root causes of suicide across all layers of American society. If you as a civilian want to help veterans, you could start by treating us like normal people.

This movie has no discussion of the veterans who go on to school, or work in the trades, who fly your commercial airliners and perform surgery on you and fix your diesel engine, the veterans who start successful small business or the veterans who work as cops. In the context of being ignored by Hollywood, the real forgotten veterans are the vast majority who go on to live happy and successful lives.

Blowing the issue out of proportion and painting every Iraq and Afghanistan vet with the same broad brush leaves the general public with the impression that we’re all dangerous to ourselves and others. These barriers to reintegration don’t help veterans, they hurt them grievously. However well-intentioned the director of Thank You For Your Service might have been, he has, by perpetuating the false “broken veteran” narrative, done veterans a great disservice with this movie.

5 thoughts on “In “Thank You For Your Service” All Vets Are Broken”

  1. When we came back to the world after SEA, we were baby killers, spat on, cussed at, etc.,etc.
    Most of us thought “fuckin’ hippies” and went on with life.
    Got jobs/training, worked our way up, and now have successful grand kids.
    Some buddies didn’t make it. Most did.
    It is life, in America.

  2. The “all vets are broken” myth sells well to many Leftist ideologies, from the pacifists who are convinced all war is worthless and harmful, to the anti-imperialists who like to use the myth to bolster their claim that foreign wars are too costly to bear.

    The pushback from many “rightist” ideologies that all vets are heroes, is equally wrong.

    All vets are people, and not defined solely by the myths and labels other attach to the status of “veteran.” But…when people prefer their ideology over reality, it is really hard to kill the myths even with facts and truth.

  3. The idea that combat vets are “broken” is nothing new, but there is a line between realizing that they may need help on the one hand, and that they are permanently disabled on the other. There is also a line between having compassion for those who need help, and making them into stage props. Thank you for helping draw that line.

    May I recommend the book “Shook Over Hell” by Eric Dean? He became interested in Vietnam vets (the last group that were supposed to be permanently – often dangerously – scarred by war) and wondered if they were really unique, if Vietnam was really that different from past wars. In going through records of Indiana vets of the Late Unpleasantness, he found that they are not. Of course, there was little or no understanding of such things as PTSD in the 19th century, and men were expected to “deal with it”.

    We’ve come a long way, but I think that sensationalizing the problems that vers can and do have does nobody – least of all them – any favors.

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