Adam Schumann, 36, served with 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment in Iraq during 2007-2008. He was one of the soldiers profiled in journalist David Finkel’s 2013 book, Thank You For Your Service. Schumann inspired the main character (played by actor Miles Teller) in Dreamworks’ feature film adaptation of the same name. He spoke to Senior Editor Paraag Shukla about his experiences and post-traumatic stress.
It’s hard to believe it’s already been a decade since the events portrayed in the film.
There is often a stigma associated with seeking treatment. How did you initially overcome your own hesitation, guilt, or shame to do so?
That’s a tough one. I did three deployments in Iraq in a span of about five years. I spent a lot of time over there. After my first deployment, my wife noticed some changes and suggested that I go in and talk to someone. So I did—I got some pills to help me sleep and that’s about it. I kept it to myself and didn’t tell anyone about it. But halfway through my second deployment, I had my first panic attack. I realized that if I didn’t fix this, I wasn’t going to be able to do my job anymore. In a way, I was only trying to save my own career. I knew I had to do something or I couldn’t continue to do this work.
It was that kind of self-preservation that ultimately led to that moment in my life when I was taken out of the fight and sent home for PTS. I still feel guilty about leaving my guys in the middle of that. It haunts me to this day. The hardest day of my life was when they told me that they were sending me home to get better. I didn’t have a choice. It was a kick right in the pants. I just wanted to get better so I could be a better soldier.
The official message is that it’s totally okay to seek help. But at the unit level, especially depending on your specialty, your commanders, or your location, the level of support is a hit-or-miss. What was your experience?
While deployed, we’d get a couple days off every few weeks. I wasn’t sleeping—I’d go days without sleep. I wasn’t eating. I was having really bad panic attacks. I was suffering quietly. All I wanted to do was to be able to continue doing my job without letting the guys around me down. So I started going to the mental health clinic in our forward operating base and seeing this one doctor. I think he was on his way out the door, heading home, so he didn’t seem to really give a [——].
Then Sergeant First Class James Doster was killed, and it really shook me. He was sitting in my usual seat that day. So I went back to the clinic, and by then there was a different Captain there. We started talking and she gave me some pills to help me sleep. They say you’re going to get seven hours of sleep once you take those pills. But when can you get more than an hour of sleep in Iraq? [Laughs.]
By then, we were 11 months into a 15-month tour. I just wanted to finish out that deployment so I could get back home and get better. One day, I got back from a mission and my company commander and my First Sergeant were there waiting for me. They took me aside and told me that the clinic had said that I was at burnout and recommended they send me home. I asked if I had a choice and they said I didn’t. So what can you do? A part of me felt: “I get to go home!” But the other part of me felt so guilty and so horrible that I was leaving those guys. To sit my squad down and tell them what was happening, to see these young men start to tear up—I’d take an IED or firefight any day of the week over that again. It was terrible.
So I was sent home and was estranged from the unit and lost touch with everybody. And I started this journey of recovery at square one.
Of course, everyone is different—and complex. What aspects of therapy did you find most helpful? And what are your thoughts about medication and its role in that process?
There are a lot of new and interesting therapies being introduced, but there is no silver bullet. Like you said, everyone is different. For me, it was a mixture of things. I grasped at any opportunity and any information to try and better understand what was going on. The biggest part was accepting that something was wrong and trying to figure out what it was.
The trauma therapy was really crucial, and it was in a group setting when I went through. So it was like I was with my brothers again. We’d all talk about our trauma together. That was one of my favorites, because you realize you’re not alone. Sometimes you realize your stuff may not be as bad, because you hear your friend talk and it humbles you a little. Not to make light of any of it, but when you share that experience with a bunch of people that have gone through the same kind of thing, it is really powerful.
What are some barriers in trying to access assistance? Especially if a servicemember could be considered as “unfit” for promotion or command just for seeking help.
In the infantry, they say that “sick call is a crutch.” Unless you’re dying, you don’t take a day off—you suck it up and drive on. That’s a great mentality to have for warfighters, we need guys that can push through pain and continue to do that. But when a bone is broken, we put a cast on it and rehabilitate. We don’t see the physical scars and injuries in humans’ brains when they suffer trauma. We say it is a mental problem, but it is also a physical change in your brain and we haven’t figured out how to put a splint or band-aid on it. Therapy is pretty much what that is.
How can people, both military and civilian, work towards eradicating the stigma of seeking mental health help? To start and chipping away at that wall, especially for 19 or 20 year olds who may not even know themselves yet.
[Laughs] Yeah! At that age you’re pretty naïve to the whole system at that age. You’re told to go and just get this signature. If this happens, you do that. There is a flow chart and a set of regulations for everything, right?
I hope this movie stirs that up and gets people talking about it. I hope “big military” realizes they are wasting a lot of good people because they don’t know how to fix them—or that they are not willing to accept the fact of needing to get rid of the stigma. You go and see stuff you’re not supposed to and you’re not going to be the same, physically, mentally, emotionally. If you just invested a little bit of time and energy into that, you’d have a great warrior on your hands. They should nurture that.
What do you think is a huge misconception about post-traumatic stress? And what would you like people to know/understand about it?
The biggest misconception is that you’re assumed to be crazy, as though you’re going to murder someone in their sleep. Or you’re going to get drunk and break everything. That you’re just an [——]. The fact of the matter is that 99% of the people with PTS are just normal people trying to live through the day with a lot of stuff going on. That’s a horrible stigma and I want that assumption to be gone. Are there vets out there that act like that? Sure, there are bad people everywhere. But that is such a bad stereotype to throw on top of a mental injury.
When approaching this subject, it’s so important to create a dialogue. But the phrase “thank you for your service,” which of course was intentionally chosen as the book and film title, doesn’t encourage that.
Right, it’s the beginning and end of a conversation. That’s it.
How about “welcome back” or “how are you doing?”
Right! “How are you doing? Welcome home. Where did you serve?” That opens a door, and know what? If a veteran is comfortable enough, maybe he or she will share some stories and unload a little bit of that burden off their backs.
One of the interesting things that rarely gets discussed is that many people may not actually want to know. They say they do, and they may feel bad about it, but they don’t really want to carry a bit of understanding about what someone may be going through.
Yeah, absolutely. If you have that trauma, you’re scared to dump it out there sometimes. You don’t want to put that weight on someone else. It’s really difficult to find a happy medium to get the dialogue going. Once it gets flowing, it’s great and therapeutic, and it’s one of the best ways to get better.
In the meantime, I’ll just keep on keepin’ on and hopefully this message keeps on going and we can get everyone talking about it.✯
Film Recon is a web series by Paraag Shukla, Senior Editor at HistoryNet.
Thank You For Your Service opens in theaters on October 27, 2017.