Under the Radar

PBS Highlights Military Families on 'The Homefront'

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It's a fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans have little or no direct connection to our all-volunteer military force. For those of us who spend every day living the life or thinking about military issues, The Homefront (premiering Monday at 9pm on most PBS stations) might seem like a portrait of the obvious. But that would be missing the point: the program makes a straightforward presentation of the struggles (and triumphs) faced by military families in a way that will educate (and hopefully motivate) a disconnected America.

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The program was made with a lot of cooperation from the Pentagon: there are extended interviews with both Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey (and his wife Deanie) and Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno interspersed with the portraits of military families highlighted in the film. There are plenty of scenes filmed on ship and on base and we're hearing active-duty men and women (and their spouses) talk openly about their experiences on camera.

The Homefront strategically covers a lot of bases, hitting all the branches of service, covering both men and women who serve, female (and male!) spouses who give up careers to support a military career and troops who face combat and others who are pursuing the important support careers that don't often get profiled in these kinds of documentaries.

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The program explains the evolution from the "If the Army wanted you to have a family, it would've issued you one" to the current era, explaining the transition to an all-volunteer force after the Vietnam War and how the benefits package became a way to attract (and keep) prize recruits.

Every story in this program resonates in a different way, but the story of Army Col. Jeffrey French and his family hits home. When he finally gets a last-minute opportunity to lead a combat unit in Afghanistan, it turned out the the men under his command were the JBLM troops who would be found guilty of murdering civilians. French talks openly about the negative impact on his career and doesn't shirk responsibility for the men under his command. Most civilians would cry, "That's not fair!" but the French family gives great insight into an important (and complex) component of military life.

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Another compelling segment covers the experiences of Army Spc. Jamie Lee. The translator met his wife Lisa at language school and was severely injured shortly after deployment. Lee was determined to continue his service and the program effectively puts his recovery into the broader context of military life, rather than siloing him off in a group of wounded warriors.

The Homefront is part of PBS' Stories of Service initiative, which aims to educate its audience about the modern (and historical) military experience. The new program makes an excellent companion to last year's Coming Back With Wes Moore, with The Homefront focusing on men and women who still serve and giving equal (or more) time to the kids and spouses of the military members. In 2017, PBS will premiere the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary series The Vietnam War.

It's worth noting that the network most reviled by our conservative representatives as being too "liberal" is the organization that's most devoted to chronicling the military experience for mainstream America. If you watch this show and find it moving or enlightening, take a minute and make a post on your representative's Facebook page and let him or her know what you think.

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