This is partially a reflection on a movie seen at the Duluth 10 Cinema, partially a survey of important Duluth resources, and partially a reflection on the way I wish the world would be.
Thank You for Your Service tries to do a lot and succeeds in part. I respond to it within what I know and teach in my Introduction to Writing Studies) class, in which we read about the Vietnam War.
What the movie does well: Sound and the Internal Landscape of the Veteran. I ask my students to read Basil Clark and Mark Huglen’s Poetic Healing, a book by a Vietnam vet with tinnitus.
Thank You for Your Service introduces “invisible disability” — not tinnitus, but traumatic brain injury and depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The movie uses sound (e.g. the roar of a racetrack) to help moviegoers feel the roar in the heads of the veterans, the noise that just won’t stop.
What the movie does less well: Depression and the 23rd Veteran. A story in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried that remains with students is the story of Norman Bowker. Norman returns from war and quietly circles the lake in his small town, facing his feelings alone. His inability to share his experiences leads to his suicide.
In Thank You for Your Service, within the first half an hour of the film, a veteran commits suicide. It happens fast, before we care or understand his struggle. (It’s designed, I think, to teach us that depression in other characters has consequences — that they might commit suicide too.)
The movie tells us that 22 veterans a day commit suicide. In sharing that statistic, the movie connects us to the work of Esko’s The 23rd Veteran, which hosts events like the “Nearly Naked Ruck March” to support transitioning vets. That’s important work of awareness, and the movie is valuable for that.
Where the movie struggles: Storytelling among Vets. The primary conflict in Thank You for Your Service circles storytelling. A widow accosts Adam Schumann to demand the story of her husband’s death. Schumann can’t tell his wife, he can’t tell the widow, and the Veteran’s Administration can’t give him the therapist (whose job it is to listen) for months. The movie’s climax is the moment he returns to the war widow and confesses his responsibility for the death of her husband. It’s cathartic, but telling the story of trauma once is just the beginning of healing.
My students look at interviews with veterans, moments when they share their stories with the Veteran’s Hall at the St. Louis County Historical Society. The volunteers are trained, and the stories are preserved. (Vietnam veteran stories are here; Iraq veteran stories are here.) We are only beginning to listen to veterans.
In this way, the movie is complicated. The primary story of the movie is in Schumann, the man whom we asked to be brave enough to serve in a war and who, when he comes home, must be brave enough to tell the story.
The movie asks as much of Schumann as we can of any person, maybe as much as we ask of all vets. Maybe more than we should.
I teach writing. Some days, I imagine that the work of teaching writing is making students believe that they can speak. There is no argument that they should be afraid to make, nor any story that they should be afraid to tell.
In that, I put an awful lot of the weight on the students — I ask them to be brave, too.
There is another way to conceive of my work: that my goal is not to make them believe that they can speak, that they can tell their story. Instead, I make them believe that I will listen, that the world will listen.
I think about what a sequel to Thank You for Your Service might look like: perhaps the story of a spouse, a friend, a community, a nation learning how to make our veterans believe we will listen. And then listening.
Who knows what might happen next?
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