In the new movie, “Thank You for Your Service,” Adam Schumann (played by Miles Teller) struggles to cope with the rigors of returning to his old life while carrying the emotional burden of tragedy and guilt he picked up throughout a particularly difficult deployment to Afghanistan. His two friends, Aieti and Waller, also find themselves unsure of how to adjust to world they left behind, as they come to realize that not only has it changed, but they have as well.
The challenges these soldiers face in the film are a reflection of those faced by real veterans every day, including the real Adam Schumann, who served as the motivation first for the book, and then for the screenplay of “Thank You for Your Service.” Like so many veterans, this topic is of particular import to me, as I’ve lost more friends to emotional and mental struggles, than I have to enemy contact.
Not long after watching the movie, the studio reached out and offered me the opportunity to sit down with the real Adam Schumann, as well as Miles Teller and Jason Hall, who wrote and directed the film. Because of my personal connection to the subject matter, I was not only excited to sit down with some certified Hollywood types (I live in Georgia, so it’s an uncommon occurrence) but more so, I was eager to hear about the thought that went into the film’s creative choices when depicting a demographic I hold so dear, as well as the challenges they face.
Jason Hall, who also wrote the screenplay for “American Sniper,” made his directorial debut with this film, and immediately upon meeting him it’s clear that he’s passionate not just about the movie, but about the cause that serves as it’s driving force: veteran suicide. A pretty imposing man, it’s not necessarily his physical presence that commands the room, so much as his confidence, and the way he interacts with you directly while ensuring the room remains engaged. It’s easy to see why he made the jump to directing.
As we sat down across a conference room table at the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta, I had a sense that these three guys weren’t quite sure what to expect from me, which was fitting, because I had driven there that afternoon feeling the very same way about them. We exchanged pleasantries before getting down to business, and in what I feel was a rather telling gesture, one of the first things Hall asked me was if I would recommend this movie to other people who have had similar experiences.
The question wasn’t born out of insecurity, it was an opportunity for Hall to look his audience in the eye and see if his work had struck a chord. Hall wasn’t asking if I felt the movie was marketable, Oscar worthy, or going to make a hundred million dollars; what seemed to matter to him, was that he’d done us, the veterans, a service in his telling of one of our stories.
I asked Hall about the film’s depiction of veterans, and if he felt the struggles shown on-screen could lend itself to a public perception of veterans as “damaged goods.”
The story we told was true, and as you know, not everybody suffers with this. This is a movie about the guys David [Finkel] followed home in the book, and I encourage everybody to pursue stories about veterans, but this was a war story we hadn’t seen before.” Hall explained.
“What we wanted to do was put the audience, the civilian population, in the front seat to see what it’s like for you guys when you come home. We wanted them to see how this war, and the loss you guys experience, resonates around inside of you through the personal story of Adam Schumann’s experience.”
Hall emphasized a few times that the audience he was courting in this film wasn’t necessarily veterans themselves, but rather a civilian population that finds itself largely unaware of the challenges faced by veterans.
We tried to tell the story of their experiences in as personal a way as we could, so that the civilian population can come to a little bit better understanding of the sacrifice of service and the serious challenges a minority of veterans coming home face.”
Miles Teller echoed Hall’s respect for the veteran community. So much so that he admitted that he was initially intimidated by the screenplay when it came across his desk.
With pretty much every other profession, you can kind of fake your way through it,” Teller told me, “Ya know, I played a boxer, and there was a small boxing community there to tell me that my jab was off in some shots or something, but I grew up in a small, country town with so much respect for the military. A lot of my close friends have been in the military, and I worried that just acting the role could seem disrespectful to the sacrifices these guys make.”
Ultimately, Teller explained, he felt like he could help bring the story to life, and share something that he, like Hall, felt was important.
Hall and Teller are both Hollywood professionals, complete with the fit and finish you’d expect of someone who presents themselves to guys like me for a living. They were respectful, personable, and easy-going, but they were also well-practiced at the press junket bonanza. Ultimately, the story these two men were working to tell was that of Schumann, so it was important to me that I got a sense of how he felt about the film, and about the challenges faced by veterans as a whole. Schumann had Finkel, the book’s author, following him in real-time throughout many of the stories recounted in the book, and then the movie.
I forget sometimes that there was a fly on the wall for some of darkest days of my life, and I think that anyone that has a camera in their house 24-7 would end up embarrassed by some of the things they ended up doing… I was in a place that was alien to me, coming back home, ya know? I didn’t know what I was doing.” Schumann spoke softly, and to be honest, it hadn’t occurred to me as a moviegoer that he might have felt embarrassment at the depiction of his weakest moments on the big screen.
“Seeing the movie shook me down to the core… It brought me back to places, like that funeral in Iraq… when TAPS starts playing and you’re putting your friend to rest and you do final roll call. The First Sergeant calls their name and there’s no fuckin’ response… it just hits you in the nuts… but honestly, if the movie didn’t do that to me, then Jason and Miles wouldn’t have done their job.”
That sense of responsibility between Jason Hall and Miles Teller was palpable in the room with us. These men set out to tell one man’s story as a means to shed light on the plight of millions of others, and it was clear that they’d worked throughout with the intent to do the veteran community a service.
For Hall, who spent time working with VA doctors, meeting with patients, and talking with veterans that have gone through similar circumstances to Schumann’s, his understanding of the mental health challenges faced by veterans today is more than superficial. The movie depicts the VA in a brutally realistic light, but Hall was quick to point out that the VA’s failures are often due to limited resources, rather than an unconcerned staff.
The woman you see at the VA, scheduling patients through her lunch break – that’s a real person. Her name is Beth. She’s married to a soldier that’s a quadriplegic. When she goes home from her job helping veterans, she spends the rest of her time helping the one she loves.”
Schumann and I both admitted to laughing during a particularly heated scene where Teller scolds a VA employee for making him wait for hours only to be turned away from treatment and told to return on another day. It’s a moment that likely rings true for every veteran that’s ever spent a day waiting to be seen at a VA clinic, but that may come as a surprise to those who haven’t.
You know as well as I do that you could come home from theater, throw a six-pack between us and try to relate your experience to me and I might not ever get any sense of what it was really like…” Hall said. “But the magic of a movie, done well, is that it can articulate the experience that Adam went through. It could be that every civilian walks out of this movie like, ‘I had no idea…’ That’s what I want. I want the audience to have a new awareness and understanding of the veteran experience. It’s things like that that’ll bridge the divide, and hopefully, bring a new empathy and a new understanding to veterans.”
Schumann’s story is unique to him, but the struggle, unfortunately isn’t. Now that a good deal of time has gone by, I asked him what he would have done differently if he could go back and do it again.
I look back, and it took me years to start reaching out to the guys from my unit again, and if I had just done that in the beginning, it might not have been such a shitty process.” He told me.
The process of getting help is, for Schumann like many other veterans, often a messy and difficult one, but he’s a shining example of a man who has been to the edge and managed to fight his way back. I asked him if anything from those dark days of his struggle stick with him, and he shook his head.
None of that stays with me. The loss of James… that’s what stays with me.”
“Thank You for Your Service” opens everywhere on Friday.