Wes Moore and Bonnie Collins, the mother of his friend Brian, who helped inspire "Coming Back With Wes Moore." The documentary about veterans' experiences returning to the U.S. premieres on PBS at 8PM on May 13. (Credit: Courtesy of Powderhouse)
Wes Moore and Bonnie Collins, the mother of his friend Brian, whose suicide helped inspire “Coming Back With Wes Moore.” The documentary about veterans’ experiences in returning to the U.S. premieres on PBS tonight at 8. (Courtesy Powderhouse)

“This is going to be the first time in over a decade where we don’t have an active Army that is preparing for war. We’re preparing for something very different, and frankly something very nebulous,” Wes Moore, an Army captain who served in Afghanistan, told me when we spoke in late April. “What does the end of combat operations mean for 2.6 million people who have actually been fighting in these wars?”

It is an important question, and Moore tries to answer at least some of it in a new miniseries, “Coming Back With Wes Moore,” which debuts on PBS stations at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

The three-part documentary is part of a larger effort by PBS to meet the needs of veterans as public television viewers and as citizens of the local communities the network serves. Last week, PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting announced that they would collect military-related content, including Ken Burns’s forthcoming Vietnam series, at a new online portal, “Stories of Service.” And the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is providing grants to stations in 13 cities with high concentrations of veterans to help them connect more directly with veterans’ organizations.

Beth Hoppe, the chief programming officer for PBS, said she had been touched by veterans’ responses at an event for “Coming Back.” The servicemembers told the audience that they appreciate being thanked for their service, she said, but they “would love it if there was more of a conversation after that.”

She emphasized that PBS also had a role to play in reaching two different audiences: veterans who are leaving behind the support systems of their combat units and who are eager to see themselves on-screen, and civilians who face a significant knowledge gap about military experiences.

“By seeing other veterans’ stories, they’ll realize they are not so alone as they’re feeling when they come back to their family who doesn’t know everything they’re going through,” Hoppe said. “But when people who haven’t experienced it watch these stories, they’ll start to understand. I’m still just getting the complexity of that experience of coming back.”

Moore emphasized that complexity as well.

“It’s not linear. It’s not simple,” he said. “We delve into this pool of superficial thought: ‘Everything’s okay and there’s nothing to see over here.’ Or it’s, ‘They’re all ticking time bombs and everything is bad.'”

Mistaken assumptions often guide approaches to issues including employment and college completion, Moore suggested.

Andy Clark, a military contractor featured in the series, re-ups for the military after finding himself under-stimulated by civilian life. Moore said that when employers want to hire veterans, “One of the misconceptions that people have about veterans is that we’re like, these robots.” It is true that the military is hierarchical, Moore said, but that structure exists to define spaces in which people can innovate, especially considering how fast their environments and assignments can change. Someone like Andy needs to be treated more like an entrepreneur and less like a drone to succeed back in the U.S.

Making this shift might be challenging enough for employers in good times. But “these wars have been fought at a time of amazing economic conflagration and instability in this country,” Moore said. Veterans have often stayed in the military longer than they might have otherwise because of the recession, and as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, they are returning to a job market that has not fully recovered and that may have less room to experiment with ways of structuring work.

Colleges, meanwhile, are often eager to enroll veterans because of the steady funding for their education provided through the G.I. Bill, Moore said, but they are not always prepared to integrate veterans into a radically different social environment. The shift from a high-stress, high-responsibility environment to the relatively unstructured space of college, where a veteran may have much younger peers, is significant. And while Moore said that veterans and the organizations that serve them need to face up to some gaps in academic preparation, he emphasized that “The lion’s share of the issue for the veterans community has been social.”

A changing military also poses challenges to the support structures that have served military families well in previous conflicts. “Coming Back With Wes Moore” features Star and Chris, a married couple who alternate their deployments and their stints to serve as the primary caregiver to their child.

Moore said that, although women have long been in uniform, the support groups for the relatives left behind are often guided by the assumption that those family members will be female.

“It’s the wives of the brigade commanders who take on the responsibility of getting the other women and wives,” he noted. “In some cases it’s being the man left back home. I don’t think we’ve made the full transition in the military community, and the civilian community, to think about what that means.”

And organizations for service members have had to make changes, recognizing the social media habits of the people they are serving and the declining importance of places like American Legion halls.

“That’s where these men and women are,” Moore said. “They’re not necessarily traveling 40 miles to the place where they can hang out and throw down a few beers with friends and laugh and talk. We need to meet our veterans where they are.”

One complicating factor that can greatly prolong service members’ reintegration into their communities is a bit of a paradox. Improvements in medical technology now mean that soldiers can survive injuries that surely would have killed them in previous conflicts. But they also require intensive care, sometimes from their spouses as well as medical professionals, and must learn to live with gravely altered abilities and experiences.

Bobby Henline, the only survivor of an IED attack that killed everyone else in his Humvee, now works as a stand-up comedian, turning his lost hand and dramatic facial scars into material for his act. Moore said that does not mean the transition has been easy, though.

“He’s afraid to go outside, because he doesn’t want to scare people. He doesn’t want to offend them. He doesn’t want to go out and have them stare like he’s a show or see the people whispering about him,” Moore said.

All this is a lot to tackle in three hours of programming. But Hoppe emphasizes that “Coming Back With Wes Moore” is only the beginning of a larger effort by PBS to engage with veterans and veterans’ issues and to collect their stories. Wisconsin Public Television pioneered this approach with an event that brought together Vietnam veterans and gave them an opportunity to speak out. Other affiliates have partnered with veterans-oriented community organizations.

“We’re the last network that’s got independently owned and operated affiliates — boots on the ground in every market in the country, 179 licensees and 360 actual individual stations. And we’ve got human beings working at them who almost, to a station, have community-outreach resources,” Hoppe said. “We really do not see ourselves as a passive broadcaster. That’s the vibrancy that we can offer that other broadcasters just don’t have, because they don’t have that deep reach.”

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.
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