Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Veterans Day Viewing: Debt of Honor

Title: Debt of Honor: Disabled Veterans in American History
Director: Ric Burns
Language: English
Rating: PG

I watched a free screening last night for a documentary that will be airing on PBS tonight, 11/10, at 9 p.m. eastern time. Debt of Honor looks at the way the U.S. has responded to returning wounded veterans from major wars across history.

With advances in medicine and technology, there are many more people who survive serious injuries in the line of duty, but they might return with missing limbs, paralysis or with visible scars. These permanent injuries are among the challenges to returning to civilian life.

The documentary also focuses on mental health, particularly post-traumatic stress, in returning veterans. As far as we can tell, mental trauma has always been a part of war, with different names for post-traumatic stress ("soldier's heart" after the Civil War, "shellshock" after WWI), and our understanding of it increased greatly after the Vietnam War. But there's still much that we don't understand and a stigma remains. Often, it's the psychological issues (including but not limited to PTSD) that keep returning troops from merging back into daily life successfully. It's also a matter of redefining or readjusting their identity after spending time in a combat zone or military setting. And if they're injured or mentally traumatized, they need to find a way to make sense of life.

General attitudes have also varied, from one war to another, towards returning veterans and how to respond to those injured; and the documentary makes the point that since Vietnam, the military and the mainstream population have gone separate ways. There's a disconnect between them. We don't have a draft. Civilians may not even really feel any direct effects of war, and may live in ignorance of complex battles fought in places they wouldn't be able to find on a map. So when soldiers return, it might as well be from an alien world. Meantime, there are high rates of suicide among veterans and soldiers in active duty.

The film is well worth watching, so if you have time tonight and have access to PBS please check it out (or get the DVD at some other point). After the screening last night, there was a discussion panel that covered several topics, including inadequate care for veterans. For instance, Guam has a super-high rate of U.S. military service, but it's terribly short on VA resources. (Here's a short video on that.)