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American Veteran’s simple, surprising stories are neither propaganda nor polemic

American Veteran’s simple, surprising stories are neither propaganda nor polemic
Retired Lt. Colonel Harold Brown, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, as seen on PBS's American Veteran. (Photo by Ronan Killeen/PBS)

“We cried, we laughed, we killed, we did everything together, and for one another.”

“We were kids: too young to drink, too young to vote, but not too young to die.”

“We are your neighbors.”

“We are living history. We are primary source. I am telling you my story.”

These lines are spoken by veterans in PBS’s new documentary series American Veteran (PBS, Tuesdays at 9), and that is what all four episodes deliver: first-person stories about the experience of serving in the United States armed forces from some of the 19 million people living today who’ve experienced that life.

With such simple presentation and subject matter that has not been neglected by other nonfiction television and documentaries, I was surprised at how immediately I was drawn in to the show and stories.

But that’s the power of personal narrative, the show’s craft, and the willingness of the participants to tell their own stories.

Retired Major General Angela Salinas, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, on American Veteran
Retired Major General Angela Salinas, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, on American Veteran. (Photo by Ronan Killeen/PBS)

The stories are honest, forthright, and unflinching, conveying a variety of emotions and thoughts about people’s service. American Veteran isn’t Pentagon propaganda or a glorification of military service, nor is it a cutting critique or argument against military service or individual wars.

Instead of making grand pronouncements about military service, the show does the opposite: it stays grounded in the honest experience of individuals. Even when it places veterans’ experiences in historical context—such as women being excluded from combat, or segregation in the military, or Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell—the series never suggests it’s trying to speak for everyone.

The first three episodes roughly follow the path that veterans take: joining (voluntarily or being recruited) and boot camp; deployment, including combat; and a return to civilian life. Each of those, of course, is quite complicated (some veterans returned home to parades and others to protest). The final episode dives into the “complicated relationship with veterans” that our society has, such as thanking them for their service but failing them repeatedly.

There’s a wide variety of experiences: on-the-ground combat in Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, Vietnam; drone operators; people who worked in the Pentagon; people enlist, are drafted, or are inspired to join by 9/11, Star Trek, G.I. Jane; horror stories and humor.

PBS says there are about 50 subjects featured across the four episodes, and their direct-to-camera narration is interspersed with b-roll footage from the past and present. While the stories carry the show, that footage is extremely well-chosen to illustrate what we’re hearing about. (American Veteran was produced by GBH and Insignia Films, with episodes directed by Stephen Ives and Leah Williams.) 

The first episode is narrated by Price is Right host Drew Carey, which might seem an odd choice unless you know that he served in the United States Marine Corps. Subsequent episodes are hosted by other famous veterans: Senator Tammy Duckworth, actor Wes Studi, and Dancing with the Stars season 13 winner J.R. Martinez.

While that’s the a good way to include celebrities, I wasn’t fond of some of the actual narration, which weaves the narrator’s own military experience into the episode. I’m glad to hear their stories, too, but there’s something odd about seeing veterans talking directly to the camera, and then having one off-camera celebrity focus on themselves as part of the context they’re providing.

Thankfully, the non-celebrity voices get the most time. And the veterans’ stories aren’t limited to TV.

A companion podcast series, American Veteran: Unforgettable Stories; each of its nine episodes feature one veteran from the series. New episodes drop on Tuesdays, while on every-other Tuesday, a new episode of the digital series, American Veteran: Keep It Close, will be on PBS’s YouTube Channel, and feature veterans talking about important objects that they still have from their service.

I haven’t yet listened to the podcast (the first episode came out last week) nor watched the video, but based on the TV show, more stories are even better.

As I watched, I was tempted to write down so many lines, but the power of American Veteran comes from hearing and seeing veterans in their own words.

American Veteran

American Veteran is a well-crafted series that allows a variety of people who served in the military to simply tell their own stories. A

What works for me:

  • Allowing individuals to tell their stories directly and honestly
  • The range of people and experiences

What could be better:

  • The awkward inclusion of the celebrity narrator’s story

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart

    Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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