“Some Say Freedom is Free, but I Tend to Disagree. . .” “Thank You for Your Service” – Movie Review

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“Thank You for Your Service” is a rated R movie adaptation of David Finkel’s best seller by the same name.  The movie is produced by Jon Kilik, best known for “The Hunger Games” movies.  Executive producers are Ann Ruark and Jane Evans. This is director and screenplay writer, Jason Hall’s first entry into the directorial arena and I don’t think it will go unnoticed by the Academy. (The 90th Annual Academy Awards will be on March 5, 2018.)  Hall also wrote the screenplay for “American Sniper.”  Last week on the “Harry” show. Harry Connick, Jr. asked why he wanted to make this movie.  Hall said that he wants people to understand the sacrifices our soldiers make.  He gets two thumbs up for that!

Based on true events , “Thank You for Your Service” is an eye-opening story about the unbelievable lack of a program for transitioning from soldier to civilian and the tragically deficient health care system in place for our combat veterans, especially when it comes to mental health.  The title can be construed as being sarcastic in that when veterans come home the military basically sends them home to navigate their way back into society with a “see ya later, thanks” attitude.

The movie follows the story of five soldiers that served an 11-month tour of duty  at Camp Rustamiyah in Iraq in 2007.

Staff Sgt. Adam Schumann

As the lead character, Miles Teller gives an astounding performance as Staff Sgt. Adam Schumann.  He comes home to his wife, Saskia, played by Haley Bennett, and their two children, one an infant son, from whom he is a bit detached, since he is meeting him for the first time – another subtle revelation of the sacrifices made by soldiers and their families.  Schumann returns not only with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD,) but feeling guilty for the death of his Sgt. First Class (SFC) and his friend’s handicapped state, even though he was given high honors for his actions during those same events.  Teller does a great job portraying the kind of friend you would want to have your back at home as well as on the battlefield.  There is no doubt this is the kind of man Schumann is.

Will Waller

Joe Cole plays Will, who the guys nicknamed “Chip,” probably because of the chip he appears to have on his shoulder. He is excited to get home to his fiance, but comes home to an empty house, the utilities cut off, no note, and his calls to her keep going straight to voicemail.  Despite the offer of support from his “brothers,” his depression gets the best of him adding to the guilty feelings of Schumann.

Specialist Sol Aieti

Beulah Koale gives an emotional performance as Specialist Sol Aieti, an American Samoan, who became an American citizen after enlisting.  He comes home to a pregnant fiance, Alea, played by Keisha Castle-Hughes.  He has brain damage caused by a head injury he got on the mission that lost SFC Doster.  He has PTSD and constant hallucinations of Doster (I’d call them “daymares” – if there was such a word.) He also displays the symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE,) but the army won’t help him because they don’t seem to have a record of his being on that mission! As if that should matter – they knew he was stationed there! Though he’s virtually “thrown to the dogs” (pun intended) by the army, he is a loyal soldier that keeps saying, “the army saved my life.”  He is completely lost now and just wants to return to the battlefield.  It seems the soldiers don’t know how to define themselves other than being soldiers. I guess it’s a phenomenon similar to “Stockholm Syndrome;” they want to go back to a routine where even though they were in constant danger, their purpose was well-defined.

SFC James Doster

Amy Schumer gives an uncharacteristically serious and convincing performance as the grieving widow of SFC James Doster, played by Brad Beyer.  As I mentioned, Adam, Sol, and Will are all struggling with PTSD and are particularly plagued by memories of the death of SFC Doster and the events leading up to it. When they de-board the plane, she immediately rushes to them to ask if they were with her husband when he died, but they avoid communicating with her because they are burdened by the guilt that he is gone and they survived. This is a problem that most of us civilians, including military spouses do not understand.  These vets have seen so much death and evil that we cannot imagine and they harbor survivor’s guilt.  It’s a heavy load that they keep bottled-up inside and it causes many to commit suicide or turn to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain. 

Michael Emory

Scott Haze plays Michael Emory, a soldier that was shot in the head during an ambush. Emory is severely handicapped and Schumann blames himself for dropping him while going down a flight of stairs trying to get him medical assistance. Though he probably has his own nightmares, his role is that of the optimist who is just grateful to be alive.

The guys realize that it is important for them to talk about what they are feeling. They seek help from their local base, but  are put on year-long waiting lists, so they turn to the VA for assistance where they are shamed by their superiors who don’t want them to “send the wrong message” to the young people newly enlisting.  So they try to battle their mental demons on their own.

Saskia, through Bennett’s performance, paints the picture of the supportive yet unaware spouse. She continually tries to  get him to open-up, but he can’t talk about it. She accompanies him to an appointment at the VA. A few points that stuck in my mind were when the VA Rep. told her, “there is no cure for trauma.” It is sad that the VA realizes that hundreds of thousands of veterans come back suffering from mental trauma, yet there are not enough resources to take care of those that come asking for help and if they don’t come asking for help, no one is checking on them.  (When we hear that the government is making “military cuts,” realize this is one of the areas that is “cut.”) It is tragic that nothing will cure them, but if they can get immediate and proper treatment, they can learn to cope. Additionally, in this scene we learn that Schumann has been bestowed many honors. As they are leaving his wife asks why he didn’t tell her that she was married to a hero. He doesn’t see himself that way, he’s so depressed and down on himself. Coincidentally, as I was writing this, on the TV in the background, I heard Dr. Phil being interviewed. They were talking about the heroism displayed by so many in the recent Vegas tragedy. Dr. Phil said, “I don’t think crises make heroes.  I think crises reveal who you were before it happened.” Probably 99% of our soldiers do not see themselves as heroes; they feel that they are just doing their job and being who they expect themselves to be. I guess you could substitute “war” for “crises” in Dr. Phil’s sentence and draw the conclusion that combat soldiers are born heroes.

The last image of the movie is the same image shown in the beginning – a vast array of dog tags slowly twirling and glistening like golden pendants. I think this is director Hall’s artistic way of driving home an important point – our men and women in the armed forces are our nation’s most precious jewels and we should admire, honor, and value them as such.

I found this movie to be deeply emotional and was infuriated to learn that not enough help is provided to our post 9/11 soldiers when they get home. While they are active duty, they “belong” to the government, but once they become civilians they are basically on their own. Every adult American, especially the family and friends of combat soldiers should see this movie.  There are so many movies that show the losses and victories of combat, but very few movies show the silent battles veterans face when they return to “the land of the free.”  Many look at our armed forces as video game characters and make thoughtless comments or ask shallow questions.  A cab driver in this movie asked, “did you kick their *sses?” Meanwhile, the soldier is trying to take in the sights and scents of freedom; the clean, fresh air that we civilians take for granted.  When they come home all in one piece, we have no idea what they’ve seen and had to endure.

Several years ago (probably around 2007) I had a friend in his mid-20s who just got home from Iraq and was working part-time. He had trouble sleeping and often called me late at night. He told me that he slept with a machete under his bed.  It was hard for me to comprehend why, when he was now home and safe.  He really couldn’t explain it to me, except to say that he was “messed-up.” Mental wounds are just as bad, if not worse than physical ones, but if you are not a mental health expert, they are impossible for the average person to understand. Mental illness can make it difficult to focus and thus render a person unable to work or handle everyday activities. This often gets misconstrued by family and friends as laziness. I know this from my own personal experience, but that is another story for another time.

I mentioned at the beginning that the movie title can be taken as sneering, however it can also be taken literally as reminding us that the first thing we should say, when we see our men and women in uniform, is – “Thank you for your service,” but it should be followed-up with a thoughtful question. Ask how they are feeling, what was it like, if they need any assistance, do they have a place to stay, and what it feels like to be home. Maybe they don’t have a home to go to and maybe we can help. They’ve bravely served us, now that they are back from combat, we need to think about how we can be of service to them.

As the credits roll, the somber singing by Bruce Springsteen of the traditional army chant known as the “Freedom Cadence,” really gets to the point  of the movie – “Some say freedom is free, but I tend to disagree, I say freedom is won by the barrell of a gun.” I think we need to remember that and stand tall and be reverent the next time the “National Anthem” is played.

If you are or know a soldier who is suffering from PTSD, CTE, depression, anxiety, anger, and/or other post-deployment or combat related mental health issues, please seek help.  Contact one of the below listed facilities.  As I close, let me say that I, personally, thank you for your bravery and service. – BMT

The Pathway Home, Inc., 100 California Drive, Madison Building, 2nd Fl. Yountville, CA 94599 – Telephone Number: (707) 948-3031 or email info@thepathwayhome.org – (This was a facility featured in the movie.)

or Cumberland River Behavioral Health at 1-(800) 273-8255

or one of the providers listed in this link: https://www.thankyouforyourservicemovie.com/veterans#MentalHealth