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Debt Of Honor: Disabled Veterans In American History

Airs Sunday, May 24, 2020 at Noon on KPBS TV + PBS Video App

An American soldier collapses in his hands from the strain of fighting along ...

Credit: Courtesy of Bettman/Corbis

Above: An American soldier collapses in his hands from the strain of fighting along the Taegu front, South Korea, 1950.

PBS presents “Debt Of Honor: Disabled Veterans In American History,” a documentary film by six-time Emmy Award-winning director Ric Burns, that premiered in 2015, as part of PBS Stories of Service.

The film examines the way in which the American government and society as a whole have regarded disabled veterans throughout history, beginning in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War and continuing through today’s conflicts in the Middle East.

Debt of Honor Trailer

The film combines personal stories, told by distinguished disabled veterans, with deep history narrated by leading scholars in the fields of disability studies, history and psychology to illustrate the human cost of war and the enormous sacrifices of military service.

These sacrifices are brought to life through hundreds of carefully curated still images and archival footage from across the country.

“The goal of this film is to try to understand the realities and challenges that disabled veterans have faced throughout history and continue to face today,” says Burns. “There is a real necessity to bridge the gap between civilians and those who have served in the military. It is our hope that the film will encourage a candid discussion in communities across the country, and create understanding and awareness of the sacrifices involved in military service.”

“As a Vietnam veteran, I believe this initiative will help in bridging the divide between the military and public,” says NEH Chairman William Adams. "NEH is committed to projects that use the humanities to inspire public discussion of the important issues of our time, and this new film offers a compelling way to open up meaningful dialogue about the service and sacrifice of disabled veterans.”

Lois Pope, a noted philanthropist and the film’s underwriter, says, “This film is about the human costs of war. It should serve to remind and educate all of us about the courageous men and women who have sacrificed parts of their bodies and minds fighting for our country.”

A poignant tribute to the history of disabled veterans in the U.S., “Debt Of Honor: Disabled Veterans In American History,” is an unflinching portrait of the realities of warfare and disabilities.

Debt Of Honor: Tammy Duckworth

Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth recounts the harrowing story of the day she was injured in Iraq when the helicopter she was flying was hit by a rocket propelled grenade.

The program features illuminating interviews with some of the country’s most prominent disabled veterans, including: U.S. Representative Tammy Duckworth (Illinois); former U.S. Senator and Veterans Affairs Administrator Max Cleland (Georgia); former Garrison Commander of Fort Belvoir, Col. Gregory Gadson; and actor, motivational speaker and Iraq War Army veteran J.R. Martinez.

Gadson, a double amputee veteran of the war in Iraq who shares his experiences on camera, calls "Debt Of Honor" “one of the most accurate and balanced productions I have ever seen. It should be mandatory viewing for all high school civics classes.”

Debt Of Honor: J.R. Martinez and Greg Gadson

Disabled veterans J.R. Martinez and Gregory Gadson tell their remarkable stories of courage, strength and resilience after being severely injured in combat.

The diverse group of scholars and military and medical experts who have participated in the film includes:

Debt Of Honor: Coming Home

Disabled veterans Max Cleland, Gregory Gadson and Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth share their personal stories about the difficulty of coming home and adjusting to civilian life after being wounded in combat.

Watch On Your Schedule:

This film is available to stream on demand through Nov. 10, 2021.


A production of Steeplechase Films. Directed by Ric Burns. Produced by Ric Burns, Bonnie Lafave and Nat Rosa. Co-producer, Josh Woltermann. Edited by Mikaela Shwer. WETA is the presenting station. Funding was provided by Lois Pope. National Outreach supported by a grant from The National Endowment of Humanities.


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