Images of American soldiers coming home from war — waving flags, surprising family members, and kissing random women in Times Square — are burned into the national consciousness. They speak well about the people in uniform, those they serve, and the country we want to be, and make us feel good about sacrifice and commitment. But while happy times of victorious, often beautiful, people are easy to celebrate, the ugliness of war is sometimes glossed-over despite the number of soldiers who don't return whole.
"War's not a video game. It's not a game of drones and cruise missiles," says Max Cleland, a Vietnam Army veteran and U.S. Senator from Georgia who lost his legs and right arm when a fellow solider dropped a grenade in April 1968. "It's a game of flesh and blood and bone and sinew. It's a game of lost lives and lost futures and lost limbs and lost minds. War is hell and produces hellacious consequences, and the country is finally catching up to that reality."
In his new PBS documentary, Debt of Honor (set to re-air December 7 at 9 p.m. ET), director Ric Burns enlists Cleland, Representative Tammy Duckworth, J.R. Martinez, and other affected soldiers to tell their stories and dissect how better battlefield medicine and technology is lowering the death toll, but creating modern challenges as the population of disabled veterans continues to rise.
"We the people need to be self-educated and self-motivated enough to bring ourselves back into an awareness of that," Burns says. "But I see that happening. We all understand we've been at war. We understand that medicine has moved on. There are a lot of people who are suffering, and at some point you have to ask yourself, 'Is it okay with me to let that go on?'"
Roughly 99 percent of Americans will never serve in the military, so Burns brings to light a civilian's obligation to the 52,353 wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the 153,303 broken from Vietnam. Maybe most importantly, the film looks at why it's so difficult for the overwhelming many to take care of the few who protect us.
But first, Burns sought to understand the history of how America has dealt with returning soldiers in the past, from vets who were fined for not covering their deformities to those who marched on Washington for compensation and the Vietnam soldiers who were physically and verbally attacked for serving in a war they never asked to be drafted into.
"History is an antidote to despair," Burns says. "It shows that things change. Attitudes that may seem self-evident are constantly in flux and transforming. It seemed self-evident to spit on returning troops by people who were opposed to Vietnam. There are reasons why things were that way that aren't clear at the time, and only with the retrospect do you get to see it."
More than 47 years later, Cleland, the former head of Veterans Affairs under President Carter, is a product of that evolution, even as he continues to work through his post traumatic stress disorder in weekly meetings with other veterans.
"Once trauma has come into your life, you're different. You can be easily triggered," Cleland says. "The group becomes the loving support that people need and want. I need it. I want it."
He and the 220,000 who worked under him in the late '70s were able to move the needle, if only slightly at the time, by creating the VA Vet Center program that counsels troops and their families to reach the "unacknowledged source of pain war creates." It was one of the first steps toward understanding the effects of PTSD, which Burns calls "the heart of the story."
"It's the challenge you cope with for the rest of your life," Burns says. "When does that change become out-and-out PTSD? Well when does the man who forgot to shave become the man who's growing a beard? The continuing experience becomes undeniable."
Lieutenant Colonel Gregory Gadson, who lost his legs to an IED attack in 2007, reminds us through the film that though his physical injuries are obvious, it's his mental and emotional injuries that are most difficult to overcome. "People want to know how long it took you to recover," he said. "I think I'm still recovering."
These challenges won't be solved through one documentary, and Burns and Cleland both believe reinstating compulsory national service, either in military, government, or education, would force civilians to care and be involved. For now, the soldiers and experts interviewed agree that we owe our veterans an opportunity at a normal life, including financial and educational support, healthcare, and the ability to work. Still, Lieutenant Gadson says that it's not up to civilians to solve every veteran's problem. "We're in this together," he explains. It's the emotional support we can provide that will make the most difference.
"The simple message of the film is just listen," says Burns, echoing Cleland. "Just open yourself up to it. You owe them a duty of care. Don't look away in shock or stare in horror at their wound. You need to understand that their new normal is your new normal. We have to find a way to listen and embrace and understand and allow ourselves to be changed. We can't allow ourselves to sit back and go, 'That's somebody else's business.' "
Ric Burns's next documentary, The Pilgrims, premieres November 24 on PBS.