In some ways, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are unlike the armed conflicts of the 20th century.
They were or are being fought with an all-volunteer force, but those include National Guard troops and reservists who often didn’t consciously bargain to wind up deployed overseas. Even those who signed up after the wars started may not have truly understood the consequences of repeated, lengthy deployments in a fight where civilians and enemy combatants are frequently hard to separate.
These issues, combined with the built-in stresses of combat, can cause psychological effects that can interfere with or even prevent successful reintegration into family and society. And the stigma associated with them, bolstered by sensationalistic news coverage and political agendas, can hinder or derail employment options, further exacerbating the situation.
There were combat deaths, but modern medicine saved the lives of many who would have been killed in action in previous wars. But although the doctors did their best, thousands of veterans are left with limb amputations, traumatic brain injuries, severe burns and a host of physical challenges.
While there are government and nonprofit agencies there to help, sometimes the only person who truly understands is someone who’s been there.
On Tuesday, May 13 (check local listings), PBS premieres the three-episode documentary series “Coming Back With Wes Moore,” following author, social entrepreneur, TV host (“Beyond Belief” on OWN), youth activist and Rhodes scholar Moore — an Army captain and paratrooper who served a combat tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2005-06 — as he profiles 10 people working hard to build better lives.
They are Army Sgt. Andy Clark of Denver; Army Sgt. Bobby Henline of San Antonio; Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Letrice Titus of Syracuse, N.Y.; Army National Guard Sgt. Brad Farnsley of Fort Knox, Ky.; Earl Johnson of Baltimore; Air Force Staff Sgt. Stacy Pearsall of Charleston, S.C.; Army National Guard Lt. Col. (now congressional representative) Tammy Duckworth of Schaumburg, Ill.; Army Sgt. Brian “Taylor” Urruela of Tampa, Fla.; and the married duo of Marine Sgt. Christopher Phelan and Air Force Capt. Star Lopez of Los Angeles.
As to why TV shows, movies and news stories tend to focus on the most troubled veterans, Moore tells Zap2it, “For a lot of people, that’s the story that moves, the story that sells; that’s the story that’s sexy. But it’s also a story that’s very unhelpful, because we have people that really are working every day to get better.”
To counteract the overwhelming negative focus, Moore says, “Part of the goal is we also have to first do a better job of humanizing it. We’re coming up on the longest wars in the nation’s history, where the fact is that less than 1 percent of our nation’s population has been directly involved.
“The vast majority of people in our country don’t have a direct involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, we really felt it was important to personalize this, where people need to know the stories behind it.
“Why do these veterans matter not just to us but to our larger society? So, when you hear news about the fact that the VA has a 600-day delay period on veterans getting their benefits, that’s not just a bad number. That impacts people who you’ll meet.
“When you hear stories about people who have a difficulty transitioning or stories that are not only coming about PTSD and TBI and suicide rates, etc., we will now have a chance to say, ‘Well, these are the faces that we know; these are the lives that we know; these are the families that we know.’
“Hopefully, by being able to tell the stories and really personalize it, and humanizing it, we’re able to also change the conversation.”
After his own combat experience, and after hearing the experiences of all the wounded warriors he deals with, when asked if he would want his own children to serve in the military, Moore says, “We’re not going to sit there and say that everything’s perfect. What we will say is we remember our service with a sense of pride.
“Would I be in a rush to send my son or daughter into a war zone? No, but I know, having been in the military, I would want my children to feel that sense of unity and pride.”
As for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans taking on politics firsthand – such as Rep. Duckworth – Moore says, “I’m always encouraging combat veterans who want to enter political life or serve in various ways in politics, some outside. We want our voice to be heard; we want to be understood.
“I absolutely think it’s important. I would encourage them as much as possible, but I also know that politics isn’t going to be the thing for everyone. Business, maybe, nonprofit maybe, being just a civic leader.”