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'Thank You for Your Service' director: Americans returning from war need more than appreciation

October 20, 2017 Updated: October 20, 2017 at 10:49 am
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(L to R) Writer/Director JASON HALL and MILES TELLER as Adam Schumann on the set of DreamWorks Pictures’ "Thank You for Your Service." The drama follows a group of U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq who struggle to integrate back into family and civilian life, while living with the memory of a war that threatens to destroy them long after they’ve left the battlefield.

"Thank you for your service."

It's a phrase that's meant to show appreciation, honor and respect for veterans and active-duty military.

But there's much more that can be done for Americans returning home from war, a new movie suggests.

"We need to open our arms up and carry these guys home," said Jason Hall, director of "Thank You for Your Service," a movie to be released next Friday. "My hope is it (the movie) does start a conversation."

Hall, who wrote the movie "American Sniper," makes his directorial debut with this film.

Based on a 2013 nonfiction book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Finkel of The Washington Post, the movie follows four soldiers in the Army's 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment as they return home from Iraq in 2007 to Topeka, Kan.

"They were normal grunts hoping to return to normal lives," Hall said. "For me, these guys come back to the war in their homes. The war is not over."

Finkel embedded with the soldiers for eight months, staying with them after they returned. He has said not every soldier returns from war with the difficulties of those he profiled. However, the number who do is significant.

Since 9/11, about 2.5 million Americans have entered the military, and of the 2 million who have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, "roughly 500,000 have returned with some level of psychological wound," Finkel said.

The story

The film shows the challenges faced by Adam Schumann, Tausolo Aeiti, Will Waller and Michael Emory when it comes to rejoining "normal" life.

Schumann finished two and a half tours in Iraq - 1,000 days of combat - and came home to his wife and two children. He had no civilian job and was plagued by constant flashbacks of war atrocities.

His brother in combat, Aeiti, experiences even more difficulty with re-entry, his head rattled by a brain injury.

"I don't belong here," he says in the film after returning to Kansas. Despite having a baby on the way, Aeiti wants to reenlist because the war is the only thing that makes sense.

A scene where Schumann and Aeiti visit Veterans Affairs to try to get help shows a modern-day problem - long wait times for appointments.

Schumann and Aeiti in the film have just filled out paperwork showing they are in crisis - and are thinking about suicide - but are told they may have to wait months to be seen by a doctor. The camera pans a room full of dozens of veterans in the same boat.

"I showed the film to VA Secretary David Shulkin. The secretary said everyone who's working for the VA needs to see this movie. They don't know what it's like to see these guys stepping off a plane and into their families. This movie goes after that and personalizes that," Hall said.

The advantage of the film genre is that it strings the facts together and tells the story visually.

Hall, who also wrote the screenplay, was in Denver this month for a screening of the film. Among those attending were many who serve or have served. He acknowledged the risky nature of showing it to an audience that had lived through war, knowing that the story might bring back painful memories. But the viewers embraced it.

Asked if the film was for veterans or civilians, Hall said, "The film is really for many of the combat veterans who know this experience and have lived this experience and they feel we have made a movie that reflects their experience. But also I think it's for the families. Anyone who wants to understand what we're thanking them for."

Up next

Hall will be showing the film to the cadets at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point) and to Congress.

"I will continue to push it out to our audience. And to people who can make a difference," Hall said.

After that, he's looking forward to some quiet time writing. The next story Hall has in mind has to do with war - but not modern war.

"I have a story about a general that a few people have heard of, George Washington. He started a war - the French and Indian War," Hall said with practiced sarcasm.

Writing is in Hall's blood, but now, with "Thank You for Your Service," so is directing.

"I really enjoyed the directing, to be able to see the movie to the end, the physical production aspect as well as the editing, the puzzling together all the pieces," Hall said.

The foundation he has laid with "American Sniper" and now "Thank You for Your Service" is one of continued support to our returning military.

"For me, this movie was about homecoming and finding resilience. The challenge was explaining the brotherhood these guys have, how tight their bonds are in wartime," Hall said. "This is a story that does have hope. These guys are our civic assets. If we can find a way to welcome them home, we need to do that. I wanted to make sure we were displaying that here."

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