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Documentary Screening In Albany Focuses On Disabled Veterans

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A new documentary screening in Albany tomorrow focuses on America’s disabled veterans.

Debt of Honor: A History of Disabled Veterans in America is the latest documentary from Ric Burns, who’s worked on numerous historical film projects including the PBS series The Civil War with his brother Ken. Burns says in the Revolutionary War, one in every two people wounded in combat died. With advances in medicine, that ratio is now 1 to 9.

“What that means is that we are producing disabled veterans at an increasingly great rate,” Burns said. “That means that we have many more men and women coming back from the front whom we need to figure out ‘What is our relationship to them? How do we take care of them? What do we owe?’ In my view, and I think it’s going to be the case of every American citizen, we owe them everything. They’ve offered to lay down their lives or leave part of themselves on battlefields around the world. We owe them everything to bring them back into society, to educate them, to rehabilitate them and to also take advantage of their extraordinary skills and groundedness as people who have been through enormous challenges and still face enormous challenges, but can show us what everyday heroism is really all about.”

The film features interviews with well-known veterans including former U.S. Senator Max Cleland, Colonel Greg Gadson, Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth and J.R. Martinez. All suffered some type of physical wound on the battlefield. Martinez, a combat infantryman in the 101st Airborne Division, suffered burns over 34 percent of his body when the Humvee he was driving hit a roadside bomb in Iraq.

“This phrase has been used quite a bit, I know I’ve used it since my injury 12 years ago,” Martinez said. “The war in a lot of ways really starts when you come home. That’s very true for a lot of those who face physical wounds, but it’s even more true for the many more that suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. That come home, don’t go get treatment, that feel like if I speak up it’s a sign of weakness because that’s the stigma within the military and mental health in general, that feel like I’m weak to my unit if I speak up, that I won’t be able to get a job, that people will judge me and stay away from me…that kind of mentality.”

One of the messages Burns wants people to grasp through his film is the fact that only one percent of the U.S. population serves in an all-volunteer military.

“For the foreseeable future we are going to have an all-volunteer army,” Burns said. “That’s fantastic, but what that means is one percent of us live in a kind of separate ethnic silo – the military. About which the rest of us who depend on their service, the 99 percent of us, know very little except what we stop to see on the internet, in the newspapers or on TV. So there is a huge divide, really a divide as never before.”

Martinez says that divide can manifest itself as a lack of continued, influential and public support for veterans.

“We need numbers,” Martinez said. “We need people to help us get to Congress. We need people to say ‘enough’ with the lack of healthcare, with the backlog and the suicides that happen every single day in this country amongst veterans, 22 commit suicide every single day.”

The documentary also features interviews with those in academia and the medical realm including Dr. David Gerber, the Emeritus Director of the Center for Disability Studies at the University at Buffalo. He says throughout history, the U.S. has entered conflicts with growing awareness that there will be a need to care for those who come back, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into successful care and reintegration for those veterans.

“With all the good intentions in the world, we can’t grasp the full extent of those problems and therefore plan for them intelligently,” Gerber said. “The other is the familiar matter of whether we have the resources and the will to make those resources available for the purposes that we understand we need to start considering about veterans with disabilities.”

Gerber adds that bridging the gap of understanding between civilians and veterans is a work of public education, an effort he believes more institutions of higher education are focusing on.

“We have to let people know that these people are out there and coming back to us,” he said. “We need to open our hearts, minds and our wallets, which may be the most difficult thing of all regarding the needs that they come back with.”

Martinez says some Americans are under the false impression that the government takes care of every aspect of life for service members returning home. He says there needs to be more support for the nonprofits that actually do the work in improving the lives of veterans and their families.

“What happens if tomorrow there’s a conflict that all of a sudden all of America believes in?” Martinez said. “And then what if there are no people that are voluntarily willing to join the military? Who’s going to go fight? Guess what’s going to happen - you’re going to have to go fight. Your neighbor is going to have to go fight. We’re going to have a Vietnam all over again and people are going to be pissed because there is going to be a draft. So the ones that are willing to serve our country – all of us need to do a little something to take care of them. That doesn’t always mean giving a $100 check. It means donating one dollar. Liking, sharing or commenting on a video on Facebook and leave it up to the big corporations to make that huge contribution. It means volunteering your time. That’s what it comes down to.”

Debt of Honor will be shown at the New York State Museum at 6:30 Tuesday. A panel discussion with Ric Burns, Dr. David Gerber and others will follow. The film premieres on PBS November 10th at 9 p.m., the day before Veterans’ Day.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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