Why movies are a lifeline for troops overseas

If you asked combat vet Adam Schumann to name the only place you’re likely to get robbed by Santa on Christmas Eve, he could tell you.

Because it’s a line from Friday After Next, and he knows the movie’s dialogue by heart.

(It’s the ghetto, by the way.)

He watched the stoner comedy classic about a million times when deployed as a sergeant in the Army’s 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment in Iraq, where, for Schumann and just about every other soldier, movies were a precious link to the life they knew back home.

“Movies are so important for guys over there. Somebody will have a portable DVD player with a four-inch screen and external speakers and you’ll have 30 guys watching, a whole platoon,” said Schumann, who served three tours, the last a little more than he could handle.

“It’s a way of disconnecting from combat. And it reminds you what you missed about America, a way of experiencing things you forgot about home. Or put it this way — it gives you a way to remember how you felt about home. For anybody over there, you ask them, there was probably one DVD they played over and over, and they can recite every line,” he said.

Movies helped Schumann keep it together overseas. Now, he’s the subject of one.

It’s called Thank You for Your Service, opening Friday, and it is a biographical movie that follows Schumann (and two other soldiers) back home, where the lingering effects of combat stress makes civilian life difficult, and finally impossible.

Schumann (played by Miles Teller) put up a front for his wife, but in the movie, as in life, he is increasingly overwhelmed by flashbacks of grisly incidents that occurred in Iraq — particularly two events that leave him guilt-stricken to the point of emotional paralysis, and then suicidal.

One of the movie’s plot points centers on the trouble Schumann and his buddies have getting help from the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Schumann eventually had to seek treatment at a private facility. When they realize they need help, they need it right away, and it’s simply not available.

I asked what he’d do if he were named czar of the VA.

“That’s a tough question. I guess I would tackle it like any problem in the Army. Break it down, strip it down, deconstruct it. Figure out what was working, what wasn’t working, identify what we could do better,” he said. “But I’d also give everybody a gut-check — ask them if they were doing the best job every day, because people coming through the doors every day gave the best that they had.”

Schumann told the story of his recovery to journalist David Finkel, who had been embedded with his unit in Iraq, and his combat experiences were chronicled in the book The Good Soldiers. When Finkel’s follow-up, Thank You for Your Service, was optioned for a movie, Schumann got a call from Teller, who wanted to meet him.

“I’ve played a couple of characters based on real-life people, and I always want to meet them,” said Teller (most recently firefighter Brendan McDonough in Only the Brave). “With Adam, I wanted to get to know him, to get a sense of who he is, but I also wanted to know how seriously I was taking it.

“Also, the way I look at it is, if somebody were making a movie about my life, I’d definitely want to meet the guy,” added Teller, a Downingtown native who spent a few years as a kid growing up in Cape May and who still has relatives in Wilkes-Barre, his dad’s hometown.

They hung out at Schumann’s place in North Dakota, which was important for Schumann, too, because he had no idea who the actor was (you won’t find Teller in Friday After Next).

“I binged Miles on Google, tried to find out everything I could,” he said. “But all of that sort of fell by the wayside when we met. He’s a cool guy. We were drinking beer, talking shop pretty much right off the bat.”

The sessions were invaluable for Teller.

“I think one big thing I took away from our time together was, No. 1: his giving me a sense of the daily grind over there,” he said. “But also, and I still can’t get over it, is he’s in combat, and nine days later, he’s plunged back into the role of father and husband. That’s barely a week. I just don’t see how that is possible, and, obviously, for a lot of people, it’s not.”

Schumann spent some months in denial about his mental state. The turning point was an incident — recounted in the book and depicted in the film — that caused him to doubt his capacity to care for his own children. It all became the catalyst for his decision to seek treatment, eventually at a facility called Pathway House, where intensive therapy with other vets helped him recover, over many months.

“I think in its own way, it’s as impressive as his time in combat. Adam was just fighting every day,” Teller said.

Schumann kept fighting and eventually achieved something like victory.

“Honestly, I’m doing fine. It’s been a long road. I’m able to look back on it now and see where I was and how far I’ve come, and it feels good.”