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David Finkel Gives Address at Honors Convocation

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist speaks to importance of compassion and understanding

Pulitzer prize-winning journalist David Finkel addressed LSU Honors College faculty and students and the Baton Rouge community this past Wednesday night at the 2014 Honors College Convocation. Finkel shared insights on his book Thank You for Your Service, which was the 2014 Honors College Shared Read text. Following Finkel’s remarks, Honors students took part in a Q&A session and book signing with the author.

In his opening remarks, Stuart Bell, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost of LSU, recognized the many first-year Honors students in the audience. He congratulated students on their high level of academic achievement, and stated that he has great expectations for their freshman year at LSU, during which Honors freshmen are encouraged to focus on participating on service and giving back to their local community. Honors College Dean Jonathan Earle then discussed an upcoming Honors service project in which students will hold a fundraiser for Hope For the Warriors, a nonprofit organization that provides services and support to post-9/11 veterans and their families—such as those whose stories are so vividly told in Thank You for Your Service. 

Dean Earle introduced Finkel to a full audience in the LSU Student Union Ballroom. Finkel has reported for the Washington Post from the Middle East, Africa, Central America and Europe. In 2006, he won a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting on U.S.-funded democracy efforts in Yemen, and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2012. Thank You for Your Service was nominated for a National Books Critics Circle Award in 2013. Finkel is also the author of The Good Soldiers, which chronicles the several months he spent in Baghdad, Iraq, embedded with the same Army battalion he follows post-war in Thank You for Your Service. 

“Finkel adds real depth to what we know as war reporting,” Dean Earle said. “I hope his reporting and writing make you want to follow in his footsteps.”

Finkel spoke directly to the first-year student experience, recalling when he, too, was a 19-year-old freshman in college. He described it as an extraordinary time.

Arriving to college was “to take on a new identity, to step into something, to have a broader understanding of the world,” he said. “In 2007 [the soldiers] were the same ages as Honors College freshmen. They had one thing in common: they thought they were invincible, too, and then they went into war.”

The book follows the “after-war,” which Finkel described as “the war itself” for the veterans. He shared excerpts from both The Good Soldiers and Thank You For Your Service, including interactions between a horrifically injured soldier and his eventual ex-wife, and the story of a 19-ear-old man who lost both legs, his entire right arm, most of his left arm, his ears, his eyelids and his nose on the same day George Bush said to a reporter that the United States was “kicking ass” in the war in Iraq.

Finkel described his experience of reporting the books. He recalled his correspondence with the father of a deceased soldier whose death he described in vivid detail in The Good Soldiers. He also played a chilling audio recording of the 911 call made by Shawnee Hoffman, whose story is told in Thank You for Your Service, when she found her soldier boyfriend’s body after he had committed suicide. Finkel noted that his immersive reporting style is governed by both strict ethics and a willingness to follow a story wherever it may take him—be that the inside of an bombed-out Humvee, a broken-down skiff, an operating room, or a mental ward. In sharing his personal experiences as a journalist, Finkel added even more depth to the already incredibly vivid narrative of Thank You for Your Service, and gave Honors students an exclusive view into both the life of a reporter, and into the lives of his subjects.

He concluded his talk with a plea to Honors College freshmen. “A lot can happen in four years,” Finkel said. “I hope you will use your time in this special place to become people not of crass judgment but of compassion and empathy.”

 

Story by Anna Kalmbach, LSU Honors College