debt of honor

“Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” — John 15:13

Thanks to advances in medicine, many military members who may once have made this ultimate sacrifice for country on the battlefield now may bear wounds — both visible and invisible — but survive.

We make a great show of loving and honoring them on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, but far too often, we fail them where it matters most.

On Tuesday, Nov. 10 at 9 p.m. ET/PT (check local listings for time and channel in your area), PBS premieres “Debt of Honor: Disabled Veterans in American History,” a new documentary by Emmy Award-winning director Ric Burns. Airing as part of PBS’ “Stories of Service,” it looks at the way that the American government and society have dealt with wounded warriors, from the Revolutionary War through the long war going on in the Middle East.

“The gap between civilian and military cultures in this country,” Burns (the brother of filmmaker Ken Burns) told The Tidings, “is wider than ever before. With an all-volunteer army, 99 percent of us never served. That is the most important reason to make a film like this, because the vast, vast majority, almost all of us, don’t go into the military, who are like a siloed ethnic group. They have their own experience; they tend to live in their own places.”

As more of America is physically isolated from the reality of military life, our pop culture reinforces negative stereotypes about those who serve. It’s all too common for TV shows and movies to laud protesters and anti-military dissenters but to look down on — or look suspiciously at — anyone who goes into the military.

“The whole issue of service to country is one which is fraught with all sorts of tensions,” Burns said, “ideological and otherwise. Somehow, how did it get to not be cool to serve your country? I’m not sure.

“I’m a hippie from Ann Arbor who’s now 60. I grew up in one of those places in the 1960s and ‘70s that was really detached from the military, where it was just second nature to blame servicemen for policies you might oppose. That was an aberration in American society.

“Around that time, in the 1960s and ‘70s, it stopped being cool to be in the military. The anti-establishment trend continued in the postwar Vietnam War period, where the draft was no longer a thinkable institution.”

In much of the South and the West, military and civilian cultures are intertwined. But in areas of the country where much of the media and entertainment industry lives — like the Northeast and the California coast — even if there are military installations nearby, they’re not a focus of these people’s lives. For example, there are Navy and Air Force bases very close to Los Angeles, but they’re not part of the image the area likes to project to the world.

And for some media and cultural elites, joining the military represents, at best, a poor life choice, and at worst, an indication of aberrant psychology. This represents a disconnect from the reality that the world is a dangerous place, and national security is purchased at the cost of great self-sacrifice.

“That’s exactly the kind of default response,” said Burns, “which has to be gently transformed. I don’t come from one of the military places, so when we see, in New York City, soldiers in airports, it’s a jolt. I don’t think we think that person’s got something wrong with him, but we think, ‘What’s wrong? Is the Sword of Damocles about to come down?’

“It’s because we’re removed from the visceral understanding that there are real threats, that somebody’s got to suit up and ward those threats off. Hope springs eternal that human nature is going to be different, but we look around, and it hasn’t happened.”

Among the interviewees in “Debt of Honor” are such prominent disabled veterans as Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who lost both legs and damaged an arm in Iraq; former U.S. Senator and Veterans Affairs Administrator Max Cleland (D-Georgia), who also lost both legs and part of an arm in Vietnam; and Iraq War veteran J.R. Martinez, an actor, motivational speaker and “Dancing With the Stars” champion who was severely burned over 34 percent of his body while serving in the Army.

As these people exemplify, losing part of your body doesn’t mean you’re not still a whole human being.

“The people who come back are not mainly incapable of putting one foot in front of the other,” said Burns. “They’re mainly extraordinarily able. You want that example front and center. You want to grasp how severely wounded they are, and you want to grasp how they manage to make themselves whole again in a different way. It’s an extraordinary kind of human heroism.”

Of course, some veterans are so severely affected that they will need help for the rest of their lives. But even in their suffering and struggle, they also help us.

“When we get to the point,” said Burns, “when PTSD, which is a severe injury, but there are tried and true ways of dealing with it, where is that knowledge going to have been produced? Every ER in the country, and everyone who goes into an emergency room in the country, owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the military, because it’s the military that has been working out triage, orthopedics, limb salvage.

“The things that have been learned on our battlefield have benefited society so extraordinarily.”

Burns says though, he has a “cautious hopefulness” that veterans’ needs can finally be put front and center, both by politicians and civilians.

“We’re all going to be better for it,” he said. “What happens when we put a hold on our needs and desires and serve somebody else? That’s what we basically call growing up.”