When North Dakotan Adam Schumann went to war, he didn't foresee its horrors - or a movie about his life
It's one of those small and forgettable moments in a movie. A soldier, returning from war, gets off a plane and hands his weapon to another soldier checking him in. "Sergeant Schumann, welcome home," the other soldier says. That's the moment, and then it's gone, and yet every time I see that scene, it makes me teary, because I'm seeing everything I've learned over the past 10 years about war, including what it can do to a man I'm grateful is still alive.
The scene is in a movie called "Thank You for Your Service," which opened Oct. 27 and is based on a book I wrote about Adam Schumann, a now 36-year-old veteran and Minot, N.D. resident whom I met in 2007 when I was reporting on the Iraq War. That was the year when President George W. Bush went on TV to announce a last-ditch expansion of the war that would become known as the surge.
"Well, here are the differences," Bush said at one point, comparing the surge with the war's previous failed efforts. Meanwhile, in Fort Riley, Kansas, a commander who had just learned his infantry battalion would be part of the surge listened to Bush and thought: We'll be the difference. My battalion. My soldiers. Me.
A few weeks later, that battalion of some 800 soldiers, one of whom was Adam, entered the war. Most were 19 and 20 years old, and they, too, thought they would be the difference. They had about them an air of invincibility, which lasted right up until the first of them was killed. Then came a second death, and a third, and soon the invincibility had been replaced with a soldier's singular knowledge of what heartbreak can feel like, followed by a deepening anger, followed by a coarsening of their souls.
I know this because I was with them for most of their deployment, including in September, one of the cruelest months of all. On Sept. 4, a roadside bomb blasted into five soldiers in a Humvee. Three died on the spot, a fourth lost both his legs, and a fifth lost all his limbs and was burned everywhere, surviving somehow for four months before his mother sent out an email saying, "Duncan would have been twenty years old tomorrow - he will be forever nineteen now, and forever missed." On Sept. 22, when another roadside bomb killed another soldier,the cruel twist this time was that as soon as he got back to base, he was going to call his wife, who a few hours before had given birth to their first child. And on Sept. 29, another roadside bomb killed another soldier, a death that was the ruin of Adam Schumann.
That soldier was the battalion's 11th soldier to die, and after the memorial ceremony, a little lost myself and in search of something encouraging, I asked around for the name of a great soldier to talk to. "Schumann," someone suggested. "If he's not our best, he's one of our best."
One quiet day, with nothing to do, I went to find the great Sgt. Schumann, who turned out to be a gaunt, haunted-looking man sitting alone on his bunk. "I guess I know why you're here," he said.
"I'm here because I heard you're a great soldier," I said.
He laughed at that. Maybe so, he said, but he was about go home. He was midway through his third deployment. He had been in combat for a thousand days. "I've lost all hope," he had written in his private journal a few weeks before, just after that 11th death. The dead man was James Doster, who had taken the seat in the Humvee that Adam was supposed to be in, but wasn't in because of his declining mental health. Now waiting to leave, under orders to do so, he was a man tormented by that, and also by something that had happened toward the beginning of the deployment, when a soldier on a rooftop was shot in the head by a sniper. Adam had hoisted the soldier onto his back and carried him down three flights of stairs, and because of the unforgiving angle of things in war, the blood coming out of the soldier's head kept flowing into Adam's open mouth as he gulped for air. Six months later, as he sat on that bunk, he was still tasting that soldier's blood, and so the time had come for him to go.
I remember walking him out of the war. He had performed as well as a soldier could. But on that day, as he walked across the forward operating base, he was cloaked in shame. As I wrote in my book about that deployment, "The Good Soldiers":
"His stomach hurt as he made his way across the FOB. He felt himself becoming nauseated. At the landing area, other soldiers from other battalions were lined up, and when the helicopter landed, everyone was allowed to board except him. He didn't understand.
"'Next one's yours,' he was told, and when it came in a few minutes later, he realized why he'd had to wait. It had a big red cross on the side. It was the helicopter for the injured and the dead.
"That was him, Adam Schumann.
"He was injured. He was dead. He was done."
A few days later, Adam arrived at a little airport in Kansas. No soldier was there to greet him, only his wife, Saskia, watching through airport windows as he walked by himself across the tarmac. He's a skeleton, she thought, with a sinking heart, and she could feel whatever hope she had flowing out of her as she looked at a man who was silently wishing he had some type of physical injury - a bullet wound, a missing limb - so he could prove to anyone, especially to himself, that he had left the war legitimately.
Meanwhile, I stayed on in Iraq, and then I wrote my book, and after it was published, I began hearing from soldier after soldier about how hard it was to be home. They were getting into fights. Drinking too much. Getting divorced. Describing symptoms of depression. Not all of them, not most of them, but enough that I decided to write a second book, "Thank You for Your Service," the one upon which the movie is based. Adam is at its core. There are others: Amanda Doster, James Doster's widow, whose shame was that she couldn't stop missing her husband. Tausolo Aieti, whose shame wasn't about the two soldiers he saved from a burning Humvee, but the one he didn't save and who kept showing up in his dreams, on fire and saying, "Why didn't you save me?"
All of them in their own ways were versions of Adam, who, as the years went by, was sinking deeper and deeper into his own shame until a day when he ended up in the basement of his house, a shotgun jammed into the underside of his chin, its barrel glistening wet from his crying, his finger on the trigger, all of this illuminated only by the gray light of a cloudy day coming in a little window like a smudge. For 20 minutes or so, Saskia begged Adam not to kill himself, even though a part of her had become so heartbroken and then angry and then coarsened, so tired of it all, she had reached her own point of wanting it to be over.
What saved him from killing himself, Adam would say later, was the sound of his son in another part of the house, waking in his crib from a nap. That sound, faint as it was as it seeped through the floorboards, brought Adam back from a place arrived at every day by 20 American veterans who commit suicide, and countless others who almost do. He allowed Saskia to take the gun, and when that happened, his shame now had a crack in it, and the crack allowed him to say out loud, finally, that he probably needed some help.
All of what happened next, by no means a straight line, is documented in the book, and now, in fictionalized form, in a movie that came about through the most improbable of circumstances. Somehow, the book ended up in the hands of Steven Spielberg, who wanted his company, Dreamworks, to make it into a movie. Somehow, when I met Spielberg, and he asked me to sign a copy, and I panicked because I wasn't sure whether he spelled his first name Steven or Stephen, and I needed to buy some time to figure it out, and said to him, oh so coolly, "Let's see how the meeting goes," he still wanted to make a movie. "OK. Let's see how the meeting goes," he said, and soon he had hired Jason Hall to write and direct it, and then, filming underway, Hall invited Adam to visit the set.
Nine years had gone by since Adam's homecoming, and on this day, the scene being filmed was its movie version. It was a big, complicated scene, involving hundreds of people. Miles Teller, cast as Adam, was there. So was Haley Bennett, cast as Saskia, in her last seconds of being a hopeful wife, and Amy Schumer, cast as Amanda Doster, who was about to run up to Teller and ask him whether he knew what had happened to her husband. And Adam was there, too, dressed in an Army uniform because Hall, in a moment of generosity, had decided to write him into the scene.
This was the filming of the forgettable moment.
Here came Miles Teller as Adam Schumann, walking across the tarmac.
Here was Teller, handing his weapon to the soldier checking him in.
And here was Adam, taking that weapon and looking at it, and then looking up at the fictional version of his wounded self.
"Sergeant Schumann, welcome home," he said.
I've spent a lot of the time over the last 10 years thinking about healing. How it has happened in some soldiers and not in others? How some people think it can be easily accomplished by following a set of instructions, as though willing away the taste of blood is just a matter of discipline.
Maybe they're right, I think sometimes, and then my thoughts always return to Adam, who is as willing a person as I've ever met, and whose life is still a long way from perfect. Every so often he calls me, when things are going badly, just to talk, and I'm thankful for that, just as I'm thankful to be able to call him, too, when the one in need is me. Inevitably our conversations come down to the great truth he has learned about healing: You stop trying, or you keep trying. If you keep trying, there will be days when you want to stop. But there will be other days, too, ones beyond the imagination of someone in a basement with a shotgun, or leaving Kansas to win a war.
"Sergeant Schumann, welcome home," Adam said on one of the those days, and he said it so well that Hall changed the camera angles and had him say it again.
"Sergeant Schumann, welcome home," he said again.
And then again, this time in a close-up, with the camera not on Teller but on Adam himself.
"Sergeant Schumann, welcome home," he said, and this time, when someone yelled, "Cut," and the filming of a movie's forgettable moment, and its most beautiful moment, was done, several hundred people spontaneously began applauding. It went on for a while, and it was all for a man who was now looking around in confusion, wondering what he had ever done in his life to be so deserving.