According to one of the unsettling statistics cited in “Thank You for Your Service,” for every American soldier killed in combat, 25 die by suicide. Tom Donahue’s moving work of advocacy journalism draws on a range of experts on the military and its mental health crisis, but it’s the first-person chronicles of the walking wounded that give the documentary its urgency and power.
The handful of Marines who share their stories from Iraq and Afghanistan are haunted by what they saw and participated in. For one veteran of the Baghdad invasion, torment over the deaths of Iraqi civilians leads him to seek out their surviving relatives. Another, suffering from survivor’s guilt, recalls watching a friend burn to death. Lives turn inward; marriages falter.
The compulsory extension of tours of duty has exposed contemporary soldiers to unprecedented levels of combat, but the film shows too that mental health problems for returning troops are nothing new. With a snippet from John Huston’s long-suppressed 1946 documentary “Let There Be Light,” Donahue nods to a short-lived psychiatric treatment program for returning World War II soldiers, one that attempted to break through the stigma against seeking help.
The film argues for a dedicated Behavioral Health Corps for the armed forces, and highlights private programs whose healing solutions aren’t based on prescription pads. With the same clarity and fluency he brought to far sunnier material in “Casting By,” Donahue pinpoints the devastating intersection of personal trauma and institutional neglect in an age of perpetual war.