Film Review: Thank You for Your Service

An outrage-inciting documentary about the lack of mental-health support offered to American military veterans.
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Eliciting outrage and shame in equal measure, Thank You for Your Service details the lack of mental-health support offered to the men and women of the United States Armed Forces—and the tragic consequence of that neglect. Aside from a few melodramatic musical-cue flourishes, director Tom Donahue employs a standard-issue nonfiction format to address this crisis, which is now so drastic that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affair (VA) reports that 22 vets kill themselves each day—meaning that (as noted, in brutally stark fashion, at film’s conclusion) one vet will take his or her life while audiences watch this 87-minute feature. That statistic serves as the horrifying final takeaway from this infuriating and heartbreaking documentary, which makes an almost unassailable large-scale argument that it bolsters with wrenching small-scale portraits of soldiers scarred by their service.

Director Donahue focuses his micro-gaze on four Iraq War vets—Kenny Toone, Lu Lobello, Phil Straub and William Rodriguez—all of whom returned home from that conflict shells of their former selves. While each suffers from what might be dubbed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Thank You for Your Service contends that such a diagnosis is merely a giant vague umbrella for a host of interrelated issues, be they drug abuse, chronic fatigue syndrome, headaches, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, “survivor’s guilt” or “moral injury.” Each of these conditions necessitates its own specific treatment, but as U.S. Navy psychologist and Marine Corp vet Mark Russell makes plain, the current system in place to treat our soldiers is hopelessly fragmented and understaffed—meaning most are merely left to sort out their severe problems on their own.

The result is a skyrocketing suicide rate amongst vets, which virtually everyone interviewed for the film (including former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen, New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof, and actor and veterans’ activist Gary Sinise) views as a disgraceful state of affairs. Unfortunately, however, addressing such concerns is up to Congress, and according to Thank You for Your Service, that body has failed to create a comprehensive response to veterans’ post-war re-acclimation difficulties since at least the end of World War II. When Russell makes the case for creating a new Behavioral Health Corp in order to centralize all health-related veterans’ operations, his logic is so unimpeachable that the government’s ongoing failure to do so is nothing short of galling.

Toone’s discussion of his Russian Roulette-style suicide attempt, and Lobello’s comments about his efforts to meet with the family of civilians accidentally killed by his squadron during an Iraq firefight, only further solidifies Thank You for Your Service’s claim that veterans return home fundamentally altered by their battlefield experiences. Donahue’s late focus on independent, not-for-profit pro-vet programs confirms that rehabilitation is possible with the right resources—and, in doing so, it underlines how the government has fallen down in fulfilling its moral duty to ensure that the men and women who (often willingly) sacrifice so much on our behalf are taken care of once they return home.

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