Tragedy at the Pathway Home

Yesterday a vet and former patient at the Pathway Home at the Veterans Home of California-Yountville in northern California took hostage and then murdered the program’s executive director, Christine Loeber, Dr. Jen Golick, the program’s clinical director, and Dr. Jennifer Gonzales, a psychologist with the Department of Veterans Affairs in San Francisco. The Pathway Home lost two-thirds of its leadership team yesterday. Only the director of development and communications remains. The murderer was a vet who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder; he had recently been expelled from the Pathway Home.

This is an unspeakably bitter tragedy of which special note should be taken. The San Francisco Chronicle has the story here. The Chronicle also has a sidebar on the Pathway Home here.

The principal Chronicle story states that the Pathway Home “was a setting of the 2017 fictional movie Thank You for Your Service, about a Marine platoon leader with PTSD.” I count three errors in that sentence. I don’t think the Pathway Home is a setting of the film (here I am writing from memory), the film isn’t exactly fictional, and platoon leader Adam Schumann, accepted for treatment at Pathway Home in the film’s conclusion, is an Army vet. Otherwise perfect. (Stars and Stripes profiled Schumann in connection with the film here.)

The Chronicle sidebar on Pathway Home comes closer to the mark: “The center was featured in the nonfiction book Thank You For Your Service, which told of a soldier returning from the Middle East who was treated for debilitating emotional trauma suffered on the battlefield. A subsequent film was released last year, starring Miles Teller.” (Teller played Adam Schumann, to devastating effect.) The Chronicle sidebar includes a video about the Pathway Home featuring Christine Loeber, one of the three victims murdered yesterday.

Christian Toto is the proprietor of Hollywood in Toto. He posted his year-end 10-best list this past December. Christian had Thank You For Your Service leading the parade. Of the movies I saw in 2017, Thank You For Service was the only one that moved me, shook me up, taught me something I didn’t know and made me want to learn more, all while increasing my understanding of the service to which we pay tribute in the stock slogan that gives the movie its title.

Christian wrote: “The film’s depiction of soldiers adjusting to civilian life proved brutal. We all need to see a movie like Service to understand the pressures they face once the shooting stops. Writer/director Jason Hall, who wrote American Sniper, expertly captured the emotions of the soldier re-integrating back into society.”

What a movie. “And yet,” he notes, “the movie tanked at the box office, topping out at a sad $9 million in U.S. sales.” It was a commercial flop.

I found Phillip Carter’s detailed review of the film for Slate true to what I saw in it: “Thank You offers a window into lives that most Americans never see, providing an almost visceral sense for what it was like to fight in Iraq and then come home to your afterwar.”

The film is based on Washington Post editor David Finkel’s book of the same title. It’s the second of two books Finkel wrote about the soldiers he met while embedded with the 2-16 Infantry Battalion during the surge; the first is The Good Soldiers.

I finished reading Thank You For Your Service this morning. It is an utterly brilliant book, taking readers inside the lives of a few of the returning soldiers with whom Finkel had embedded during the surge for his first book. Finkel all but effaces himself from the incredibly intimate and powerful scenes to which he gives witness.

The most haunting elements of the film are drawn from the book. I think the adaptation of the book into a feature film is ingenious. The screenplay, incidentally, is posted online here. By my lights it was the best adaptation of a book into a film in 2017.

For dramatic purposes, the film depicts the Army as a villain in denial about the disorders with which the vets struggle to come to terms. While seeking VA benefits in one scene, for example, one of the film’s protagonists is instructed by an officer that he shouldn’t be claiming disability because other soldiers might see his example and crack too. I didn’t believe it and found it annoying. The veterans’ difficulty finding prompt and adequate medical care through the VA (featured in the film) is nevertheless a familiar plight.

Reading Finkel’s book, one sees in the person of Army vice chief of staff Peter Chiarelli (now retired) how the Army itself has struggled to come to terms with the stress disorders that the film memorably brings to life. One leaves the film wanting to learn more and do right by those whom we formulaically thank for their service. It has been my intention to learn more about the Pathway Home and support it when I finished the book.

The Pathway Home figures prominently in the film as the locus of the dreamed for treatment of the demons with which Schumann contends. According to the book, Schumann’s several months in residence at the Pathway Home helped him. Schumann’s graduation from the program toward the end of the book after four months in residential treatment is full of pain and hope.

Reading the New York Times review of the film version of Thank You, I learned of the documentary Of Men and War (reviewed briefly here), which takes place almost entirely at the Pathway Home. At the moment it is posted on YouTube and otherwise available. This morning I wanted to revisit the book, the feature film, and the documentary in light of yesterday’s horror.

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