Under the Radar

Exploring Our Country's 'Debt of Honor' With Director Ric Burns

Debt of Honor is a powerful documentary about the history of disabled vets directed by Ric Burns. It premieres tonight on PBS stations as part of the network's Stories of Service series. Funded by philanthropist Lois Pope, the film goes deep into the history of wounded veterans in all of our major wars and contrasts the history with extensive interviews with contemporary veterans like Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, Dancing With the Stars winner J.R. Martinez, former U.S. Senator Max Cleland and retired Army Col. (and Battleship movie star) Greg Gadson.

We spoke with Burns about why he made the film and what he learned from the experience. He's got a lot to say and he's made a film definitely worth watching. If you can't view it tonight, record it on your DVR or watch it on the PBS website or on the PBS app on your mobile device or TV streaming box. Don't miss this one.

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Lois Pope, who funded the film, with director Ric Burns

This is the first film I've seen that attempts to tie together the entire story of disabled veterans throughout American history.

When Lois Pope asked if I would do a film about disabled vets, we added the history part, because that’s what we do. We’re documentary filmmakers.

I found it so eye-opening to combine the history with the contemporary experience. Who knew that there was such a deep, rich, and often difficult history of disabled veterans? Who knew that from the time of the Revolutionary War down to today, you go from a time in 1776 where 1 in 2 people who are wounded die. In 2015, 1 in 9 die. What an incredible increase in survival, just that kind of change in medical capability, which means that vastly fewer people die in combat now. But that means vastly more people are coming back disabled from grievous bodily wounds in warfare, whether they're PTSD or burn or damage to limbs.

But it's more than that. It's how governmental and societal attitudes towards disabled veterans change over time as the death rate went down and the disability rate went up. It's a kind of mirror, a deep mirror in which we can see evolving, changing social attitudes and values across time.

As a child of the 60's, I grew up at a time when so much of America split off from its military. At the end of the Vietnam War, the draft was cancelled. We haven't had any national draft since 1973, when I turned 18. Since then, we've lived in a society in which most of us are increasingly removed from the all-volunteer armed services, the people who are doing the work, defending the nation.

The numbers are just astounding. 99% of civilians have nothing to do with the military. 1% are fighting all the wars. That’s an amazing statistic in a world in which there's very little that requires us to bridge that gap. We've drifted away from the sense of what the cost of war is, what the nature of service to something larger is, and we've done so at our peril. We've stranded ourselves in a kind of moral limbo where, as a nation, we've forgotten what service to something larger is, and how enriching that is to a nation but also how enriching it is for ourselves.

It’s one of those things where you begin to dig into it and you discover this whole hidden, or at least unknown to you, continent of experience and meaning and questions. For me, that was a journey of a lifetime.

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You’ve done a great job of addressing PTSD and your film dials the history back to the beginning.

Oh, man, Homer. You know it goes back to the Iliad. It goes back to the beginnings of warfare. Human beings are constructed with a gene for aggression and violence, but we're also constructed with a gene for peace and for harmony and for avoiding what's horrible in life.

Thank God we've been a culture in a world in which what's horrible in life recedes almost with each passing year, even if you wouldn’t know it from watching the news. It's not part of our experience. You know we just don’t have daily contact with war. But the fact of the matter is that anybody who had contact with it is transformed. And some people, because of the nature of their contact with it, are transformed in a really deep way, which they often struggle with for the rest of their lives.

That’s called PTSD, as Charles Marmar in the film defines. But it's no different than it was when Hector fell before the walls of Troy. When somebody gets blown up by an IED in Afghanistan or Iraq today, it’s the same thing. As Max Cleland puts it, it takes a toll. When you’ve been around hell, it takes a toll.

It's not a "spiritual thing." It doesn’t exist in some disembodied ether. It's a physical wound, PTSD. An MRI will show you what your brain and nervous system is like when you suffer from PTSD. It'll also show you what it means to heal, to reroute neural pathways through medicine and all sorts of cognitive behavioral therapies. One can begin to get over it. There's a lot we can do. There's a lot more we can learn how to do, but it is, really, it is the #1 trauma, #1 injury that we need to pay attention to.

You film makes a great counterpoint to the mainstream media’s portrayal of disabled veterans as men and women as objects of pity. You show these veterans injured in combat who are articulate, stable, productive members of society.

Which is true for the vast majority of veterans. Reach out – go and talk to a disabled veteran today. You can think that you're doing it for that person, but what you discover is you're doing it for yourself. These people are so grounded. Their priorities are so true. They have a moral compass that points straight to north. They know what service to something larger is. They know they’ve made their own choices, so they know what it means to accept responsibility for your decisions in life.

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We're talking about a cadre of people who are about as adult as you can get. I think it goes without saying. You need as many able adults as you can find in any society. And this group of people is as adult as any group of people you're ever gonna meet.

Wwhen you sit down with Max Cleland, who's got no legs and one arm, you're talking to a person who has been challenged by life and risen to the occasion and is so much more able than most of us will ever be. Same with Tammy Duckworth, same with J.R. Martinez, same with Greg Gadson.

We've shown the film around the country and now countless disabled veterans in the audience have said the same thing. What they learned they had inside them and the result of the sacrifice they made, showed them what their capabilities were in ways they would never have known without it.

Does that mean that Max Cleland doesn’t want his legs back? You know he wants them back in a heartbeat. But the fact is, is that as Tammy Duckworth said, you know, sure, I've got baggage. Who doesn’t have baggage? We all have baggage.

This really remarkable group of people, this remarkable demographic who have been challenged in ways most of us, thank God, never will be, don’t show us what it is to be pitiable. It shows a kind of everyday heroism arising to the challenges of life. That is really inspiring and deeply helpful.

If you want to know what loyalty is, these are your people. You want to know what stamina and perseverance and tenacity is? These are your people. You want to know what it means to serve something larger than yourself and put some of your own self-interest on hold? These are your people. Do we want these people in our community, in our churches and synagogues, in our workplaces, and in our school? Absolutely.

So it turns out that every step forward you take towards a disabled vet, you're doing yourself a favor.

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It seems like every generation thinks that things used to be better in the past, but you do a great job of exposing the idea that we've never done a good job of dealing with veteran care throughout our history. It's a problem that the US has faced going all the way back to the beginning.

I think that that’s right. There is progress, and, like all progress, it can feel like three steps forward, two and a half steps back sometimes, but there is progress. We've made medical progress, clearly.

The Civil War introduced the idea that, if you're going to wound and disable people on this kind of level, then there has to be an entity, an agency large enough, to deal with that. So the government steps in. The government didn’t do anything for disabled veterans in the Revolutionary War for the very good reason that there were very few of them. They were absorbed back into the civilian population. Once we get to the Civil War, you can't absorb that number of people back into the civilian population without providing them with pensions, without providing them with some form of therapy for rehabilitation, without giving some kind of pension – some kind of compensation to their families, just as you do for the widows and orphans. So you know there are things that are positive, but then there are also odd, backwards steps.

As Beth Linker, incredible historian from the University of Pennsylvania, points out, the progressive era managed to make being disabled in battle seem like a waste to be transformed into a new kind of resource. To get them back to work, that’s a good thing. Get them back into the civilian populace and that’s a good thing. But hide it, don’t let it be seen, don’t let people understand the degree to which somebody who's had their legs blown off or their face burned off, how, you know, what they struggle with. You don’t want to hide that.

So the culture of silence that came out of the World War I experience was not a good thing. After the experience of World War II, where it seemed like everybody had skin in the game, the Vietnam War came and made it seem as if like the military experience was something which was going to be hidden away.

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Future Illinois Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth recovering from her injuries.

The step backwards we've taken is we live in a world in which we have the best military in the world, it's 1% of our population, and most of the rest of us wouldn’t know it if it hit us in the face. If you walked down Broadway on the upper west side of Manhattan where I live and work, you are as far away from Tampa, Florida, or San Antonio or San Diego as you could be. You're nowhere near the epicenter of America's military life. That’s gotta change. That’s a step backwards.

Having said that, when you have a medical prowess which is saving 1 in 9 people who are grievously wounded on the battlefield, that’s a huge step forward. I hope I'm realistic, but I tend to be optimistic because I think that any American in the 99% confronted with the reality of what it means to serve your country, with what it means to be so grievously wounded, they're gonna be enlightened. It's gonna be harrowing at times, but they can be inspired by it. They're gonna say, “I didn’t know this history, this experience is remote from me, and you know what, I want to change that.”

I'm convinced that we're living in a moment, a threshold moment in American life where we are going to want to reattach to our military. That’s gonna be red state, blue state, Democrat, Republican, doesn’t matter. It's going to be because we want to live in a society in which each and every one of us believes in the idea of serving something larger than ourselves. If there's anything that’s been suddenly, if also obviously, corrosive about American society, it's been how far removed so many of us have become from that concept.

So with disabled veterans, there's a larger world out there. It's not just about us. We owe something to that larger world. Look what they’ve done. Look what service they’ve provided. How can we serve them and also end up serving ourselves better?

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