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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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?

  • Richard C

    Next Part:

    I am not sure why Max Cleland was chosen for this film, and interviewed? I respect what he has given to American, and that he is also a Brother of the Vietnam War. But, his track record for being the Secretary of Veterans Affairs is ‘Appalling!’ His tenure was at a time when he was just ‘Appointed,’ not a part of the presidents cabinet. An was forced to ‘Resign’, with Vietnam Veterans crying for his dismissal. But, nothing has changed much since. The VA Medical Center’s all have nice flowers all round the grounds, they have all these nice new glass buildings, and equipment, funds to throw their staff parties, and get bonus for NOT serving veterans, and keep 2 sets of books, etc. More money, in the VA’s Budget goes to ‘Maintenance’ than for Healthcare! Something even more alarming, is the Veterans Organization (Major) have done nothing to represent their membership, and speak out, for they know only too well. Whats going on with the VA, ‘First’ hand! In 2014 when the first ‘Scandal’ hit the News Stands, the only 2, VFW, an America Legion spoke out against them an members of Congress/Senate on the Committee of Veterans Affairs, for doing nothing. But, have said nothing since! Though, the are constantly sending out requests for ‘Donations’ and using ‘Poster-Style’ Disabled Veterans to get the public, and Veterans sympathy, to give. Then when you do, they never stop asking for more! The ‘Wounded Warrior’s Project’ has been at the forefront, since the Wars in Afghanistan, an Iraq. Getting Top Entertainers to ask for donations, but NO one has looked at their ‘Financial Statements’ an what their CEO’s get paid a year! Or, other organizations, get? Bad enough that the VA is ‘CRIMINAL’ but those that are supposed to be on your-side! All the USO shows I saw, and Bob Hope doing and spending all his Christmas with the troops. They now are just as bad, asking for ‘Goals’ to get donations. You don’t want to look at their financial Statements! Especially, if you have been sending money!

    Ms Pope, again, I thank you for your thoughts, gift, and feelings about our Veterans that have been severely wounded. And, trying to get the masses (99%) to be more caring about those that suffer long after the ‘Flag’s’ stop waving! No one really knows what Soldiers have gone through, in ‘Standing’ that line, day and night, so American can sleep well, while they don’t. Right after 911, everyone (it seemed) was flying an American flag………..Now, you barely see one. When the troops deployed in 2003 to Iraq & Afghanistan, I lowered my flag, in my front yard, to ‘Half-Staff.’ It has remained there, 24/7 (changing it every 6 months), in respect for those that served, and those ‘Who Gave Some, and Those Who Gave All!’ It will remain there, until they all come home! Or, until my last breathe, which sometimes sees not too far away! I guess, then, I can finally come home, too!

    Two quote’s: “Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind” JFK

    “War’s can be prevented, just as they can be provoked……………….And, we who fail to prevent them, must share the Guilt for the dead” Omar N. Bradley, Gen. US Army (1893 – 1981)

    Respectfully yours,…………………….Richard (Legal127@aol.com).

  • Richard C

    The Following has several Parts to it: Part I of II

    I am truly dismayed, that I am the only Veteran (Disabled) to make the first, and only Comments to this fine lady’s contribution to Disabled Veterans. Maybe this is why their are is much ‘Apathy’ in getting the ‘Right’s’ we so proudly deserve!

    As a Disabled Combat Veteran of the Vietnam War (1965-67; 2 Tours) and having a brother KIA on 04/02/1970. I was very much impressed by your writings above. I have not seen, nor viewed the PBS showing of Debt Of Honor. Further, I would not of known about this article on Disabled Veterans (Of All Wars’), had I not been a member of ‘Military. Com’. Your article touched on so many truths, of our wounded, and the sacrifices they have gave, just to exist. Lois Pope, your gift to make our plight more noticeable, is commendable. I don’t know if you are a veteran, or perhaps your husband, or another love one, was (is) one, which was your inspiration to bring this to the forefront? For I feel that all veterans, and surely Disabled ones admire you, for what you have given and done on their behalf.

    I am a Life-Member of most of all the major Veterans Organizations like: American Veterans (AMVETS), Air Force Association (AFA), Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Gold Star Recipient, Military.Com, Military Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH), Together-We-Served, Vietnam Veterans Association (VVA), an Donor of the Vietnam Veterans Wall Foundation, to just name some. Being a Vietnam veteran has not been easy, through, for most of my adult life, like others! But, I think that as one, of many, that has been an advocate, that wasn’t afraid to speak out, and fight the battles back home. And, to make the public more aware of ‘who’ we were, an didn’t take ‘NO’ for an answer for those of that war. Which has paved a better way for those Veterans of War’s, since! Even, if we were ‘Forgotten!’ They are by the same government that sent us to War, an they want to forget us still! Being a Soldiers having to fight for everything I was already entitled too. Putting my self through college, earning several degrees in law, raising a family, all while working, an being disabled. So I decided I wanted to give back to my fellow Veterans. By represent Disabled Veterans, their Widows & Orphans for over 25 years, and even up to today. Not as much today, since I received my ‘Death Notice,’ an battling a new battle, as I have Inop., Stage 4, Terminal Lung Cancer. Which also came from my Combat duty in Vietnam/SEA, an is Service-Connected, along with other disabilities I had upon my return from war. It hasn’t been pleasant, but the most pain I had, was by the VA telling me I wasn’t in Vietnam (Boots On). But, I told myself I would not die until they ‘Ate Their Words of Denial!’ Which they did. Since though, I haven’t had an appointment, or follow-up treatment, medication, going on 2 years now! And, then I was given medication for ‘ Emphysema!’ Not only for the Cancer, but for ALL of my Service-Connected Disabilities. This is what a Disabled Veterans’ have to deal with. The breaking News of the VA’s ‘Scandal’ in 2014, has been the biggest joke since Wars’ have began. Only 4 people have been let go; 2 already were leaving for better jobs in government, and the others had already put in for retirement, and approved. The Secretary of Veterans Affairs, resigned, an Obama, appointed a new one! , Mr McDonald, is just waiting to retire too, when the administration leaves next year! For he has done nothing either. Veterans’ file’s were thrown out in the trash, VA employees ‘Fudged’ the numbers, some Vets wait over 10 years for appoints…….There is not enough paper to put all the malfeasance done, by VA Employees (an most are top-level) on! Lie’s and more lie’s!