Depression, nightmares, explosive rage, suicidal thoughts, personality changes, memory loss. In World War I, they called it shell shock. Now these are just some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. It's the invisible illness that accompanies military veterans home, and in some cases hastens their return.
Adam Schumann knows the subject well. Through three tours in Iraq he was lauded as the ideal soldier, a leader of men. Then he asked out. He could tell something wasn't right with his head. He could tell he still wasn't right when he got home. And he could tell that nobody, himself included, knew what was going on.
Schumann was featured in two exemplary books by the journalist David Finkel, The Good Soldiers and Thank You for Your Service. Now Thank You for Your Service is a movie, starring Miles Teller as Schumann and directed by American Sniper screenwriter Jason Hall. Now 36, Schumann is eager for others to understand an illness that plagues veterans by the thousands, even as it remains misunderstood by most.
"Nobody's willing to say what is," Schumann says. He sits alongside Hall and Teller in a Dallas hotel conference room. "It's an absolute illness. It's not a weakness. You're not a lesser human being for it, and we're all gonna experience it in some shape or form, whether it's through the loss of a loved one or a tragic accident or combat."
In the film, Schumann encounters a military higher-up back home. The higher-up doesn't offer sympathy. He gives an order: "Don't let our young guys see you fold." Such is the onus of veterans suffering from PTSD. Molded into models of toughness, they're not supposed to show vulnerability. Or ask for help.
Thank You for Your Service plays like a nightmare of both combat (in Iraq) and bureaucracy (at home). Schumann and his friend and battalion mate Tausolo (Beulah Koale) navigate a maze of paperwork, indifference and the occasional helping hand, all the while wondering if they're going insane. They don't get a hero's welcome home, largely because there's nothing visibly wrong with them. As Hall says, "They're not handing our Purple Hearts for PTSD."
Hall learned about PTSD when he spent time with Chris Kyle, the veteran who wrote the book American Sniper and became the center of the movie adaptation, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper. "There was a lot I didn't recognize and know about our warriors coming into American Sniper," he says. But he learned quickly.
"We're biologically changed by trauma," Hall says. "Traumatic memories record differently than a normal memory. They record in a different part of the brain, and it's seared into the part of the brain that's responsible for muscle memory, things like riding a bike. Just a physical movement can trigger it, because it's stored in the medulla."
Schumann and Teller chuckle. "They get a kick out of me saying 'medulla,'" Hall says. "Well," says Schumann, "you said 'seared,' I was like, here it comes, and then you kind of swerved."
When Schumann got home from his final deployment, he didn't want to talk about any of it. That is no longer the case. Talking about it has done him wonders.
"I'm an open book to anybody," he says. "But I'm not one of those guys who's gonna walk up and start telling you my life story. If you come at me in a neutral stance and you genuinely want to know, I'll sit you down and tell you everything you want to know."
Today Schumann lives in his native North Dakota. He fishes and hunts birds with his brother and old friends. He feels more comfortable in his own skin. He can enjoy life's small blessings.
Recently, out hunting with his friends, he stopped to rest on a hill. "I laid down, put my head on a rock, and my dog laid down beside me," he says. "I looked up at the sky, watched the clouds and just really brought myself into that moment. And I realized I'm not in combat anymore and it's pretty okay."