At UF, Post editor David Finkel tells powerful stories from Iraq, Afghan wars


David Finkel, enterprise editor for The Washington Post, speaks at the Bob Graham Center for Public Service in the Pugh Hall Ocora on Thursday, October 24, 2013. The event was sponsored in part by the UF College of Journalism and Communications.

Elise Giordano/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, October 24, 2013 at 8:59 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 24, 2013 at 8:59 p.m.

Since 9/11, 2.5 million Americans have joined the armed services, 2 million of whom were sent to Afghanistan and Iraq. Of those, 1.5 million came home without suffering life-changing physical or mental injuries and managed to ease back into a normal life.

Another 500,000 weren't as lucky.

They suffered, and still suffer, the mental and emotional trauma those wars took on them. Those are the soldiers that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Finkel chose to write about in his latest book, “Thank You For Your Service.”

“Imagine a map with 500,000 points illuminated all at once. It would glow from coast to coast,” Finkel said. “I chose to focus on just a few people in detail, and by telling those stories it might … grab you … make these blurry numbers seem more authentic to you.”

Finkel, the enterprise editor for the Washington Post, read excerpts of that book to a packed room of about 70 in the Ocora at the Bob Graham Center for Public Service Thursday night.

The event was co-sponsored by the Graham Center and the UF College of Journalism and Communications, where Finkel received his broadcasting degree in 1977.

Finkel was embedded with the 2-16 Infantry Battalion during the 2007 troop surge in Baghdad and chronicled the battalion's stories in another book, “The Good Soldiers.”

His latest book follows the same soldiers who made it home and “tried to get over the horrors of war, and what the cost of war really means,” UF professor Mike Foley said as he introduced Finkel, a former colleague from the days they both worked at the St. Petersburg Times.

When he first went to Baghdad, Finkel said, he met a young soldier named Adam Schumann, who happened to be leaving Iraq the same day — after having spent 1,000 days in combat, five times longer than the average combat rotation during World War II.

When the first helicopter landed in Iraq, everyone was allowed to board except for Schumann, Finkel said. The next helicopter was for him, an Army ambulance chopper with a big red cross on the side, “for the injured and the dead.” Schumann said that was how he felt, Finkel said, reading an excerpt from “The Good Soldiers”: “He was wounded, dead, and done.”

“Thank You For Your Service” follows Schumann's journey back to the real world, chronicling the two years from his return stateside through his rehabilitation after several suicide attempts and second return home and the strain that it put on his marriage and family.

He describes the family's long car ride from the rehab facility in California to their home in Kansas, the fights along the way, the anger Schumann's wife, Saskia, directs at a slow car in front of them with a bumper sticker that says “Pray for Our Troops.”

Finkel also writes about some of the other 800 infantry soldiers who had come out of Fort Riley. There's Schumann's buddy Michael Emory, who was shot in the head by a sniper.

Schumann carried him down a stairway, tasting Emory's blood as it dripped into Schumann's mouth. He also tells of the tender reunion these two men had in Kansas, fishing, talking, hanging out.

He tells the story of Kristy Robinson trying to make sense of her husband Jesse's suicide after coming home from the wars, how she tenderly brushed his hair in his casket.

And Amanda Doster, who drove around with her husband's cremated remains strapped into the passenger seat beside her and called the $100,000 death benefit she bought her house with as “blood money.”

There is also Nic DeNinno, who thought he was a monster because he'd taken photos of dead bodies in an Iraqi police station.

And Tausolo Aieti, who survived a Humvee explosion with a broken leg, pulled two of his buddies out of the wreckage but felt guilty because he couldn't also rescue the 19-year-old driver.

Finkel said he didn't write the book to pass judgment on the troop surge or debate whether war is good or bad. He just wanted to tell the stories of the people who fought it.

Finkel said the book's title is not meant to be ironic or bitter. “It's a ubiquitous phrase. We say it all the time,” he said. “You read this book and have a better idea of who you're thanking and what you're thanking them for.”

The kind of journalism Finkel practiced for seven years is called immersion journalism, where you don't simply interview people, write down what they say and report. You act as a living witness and report what you saw. And after seven years, he was done.

“These are significant wars, and I got to go to (a) corner of war no one was looking at,” Finkel said. “I consider it the work of my lifetime.”

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