On Memorial Day, remembering sacrifices of the loved ones left at home

While more than 2 million men and women serve in the American military, a new documentary, “The Homefront,” focuses on the additional 3 million husbands, wives and children who remain behind, waiting for their loved ones to return from deployment. Hari Sreenivasan talks to documentary host Bob Woodruff, an ABC correspondent who was severely wounded while covering the war in Iraq.

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    Now, on this Memorial Day, we turn our focus closer to home.

    Hari Sreenivasan has that story.


    While more than two million men and women serve in the country's all-volunteer military force, a new documentary, "The Homefront," focuses on the additional three million husbands, wives, sons and daughters who remain behind. They carry on their lives while a loved one is overseas for months, even more than a year, and sometimes on multiple deployments.

    "Homefront" is part of PBS' Military Voices initiative.

  • WOMAN:

    My name is Samantha Marie Van Fossen. I'm a specialist. I'm in the Army Reserve.

    I joined hoping that I could get on a deployment as quick as I could, because I want to do good things for my country. The only thing that I have trouble with is just in leaving my family.

    My mom, I know she's — she's not going to want to see me go. And my dad, he's going to have a really hard time with that, too. But they're all proud of me. So, that's all that matters.

  • WOMAN:

    Love you, honey.

  • WOMAN:


  • MAN:

    These wars are very different than the ones we have fought in the past.

    When we first started, we had not deployed for an extended period of time. Then the length of deployment is 12 months and then, in some cases, 15-month deployments. And then going back for second, the third and the fourth time, the impact that had on our families was significant.

  • WOMAN:

    It's definitely true that the whole family serves. You're asking kids to move frequently. You're asking kids and spouses to be without their other spouse for long periods of time. The deployments of the last 14 years have really been tough on families.

  • WOMAN:

    This is the first generation of military kids that has grown up experiencing mom or dad being gone for multiple deployments. And we're working hard to understand what the implications of this lifestyle is for children. But we're not likely to really fully understand until, you know, they grow.

  • MAN:

    We are engaged in one of the longest sustained combat operations in the history of our country. And it is being done for the first time in our history with an all-volunteer professional military force. And that does take a great toll on our families. It's been a struggle.

  • WOMAN:

    Every day you wake up, you know that the person you love is in harm's way, and there's a lot of praying going on.

    GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman: When I travel around to visit troops, I will often ask them, how many of you are on your first deployment? How many on your second, third, fourth, fifth?

    I will generally get up to six, seven, sometimes eight. And I think some young men and women actually have to decide for themselves, which one is the real world? Is it the world that they experience with their battle buddies and wingmen and swim buddies in combat, or is it the world at home?


    ABC News' Bob Woodruff was severely wounded in 2006 while covering the war in Iraq. He suffered traumatic brain injuries and spent 36 days in a medically induced coma. He has since raised millions of dollars to support wounded veterans in post-9/11 wars through the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

    He's the host of the two-hour special "Homefront" airing on PBS later this evening. He joins me now.

    So, when you started working with this documentary, you have been covering this story, so to speak, for a while now. And one of the things that struck me from that little clip is that the whole family serves. And that's kind of an interesting, different idea in these wars, compared to what has been happening for decades.


    One, it's hard to get inside the Pentagon, to just get that authority to be able to talk to all the families from all the forces.

    That was one big accomplishment right there. The other one that I feel very close to my heart is that always those who have been on that sand with the military or those of us that have been there, we're the ones that get all of the attention and the care, but those that really have in some ways suffered the most or have just lived more is those that are the families.

    That's the kids, the wives, the husbands, the parents. All of them never get much information out there about what their lives are like. And we had this very interesting, unique way to do it.


    So, you have talked to the families of so many members of the armed services for so long.

    She said something that was kind of interesting. What are the long-term consequences for the children? What happens when you literally do not see your mom or dad for several months at a time at very, very important, formative years?


    Yes. It's one of the important things that I think people don't really think about much is, if you looked at the previous wars, those are largely single-deployment wars, World War I and Vietnam, to a large degree, is that people would come out and either volunteer, like they are now, or they're drafted before, probably before they actually have a family.

    The families are formed largely when they came back, especially after World War II. But, in this case, some go before there's a kid or after. They volunteer after they already have got a kid and some families. And then they go back and forth and back and forth.

    Sometimes, they come back, and have another kid, and then go back over there again. And as the kids get older, because it's been 13 years of war, these kids that are now understanding the world, you have to explain to them why dad is going back or mom's going back again. And it makes a much — very different kind of war than it was before.


    There is also this thread of what happens after they come back for good.

    We're very familiar with the increased cases of PTSD and, sadly, the number of suicides. But there's also the economic consequences of them trying to pick their lives back up. And you would think that they would have a job, but a lot of them are unemployed at higher rates than the general population.



    This documentary is not just about those who come back with wounds. They're not just ones that come back with PTSD, but just the military life generally overtime. And, yes, it's one thing to take a year off to go serve and have your company say, yes, welcome back when you come. But every time there's that risk, you're really talking about those that are not really — they're not fully active still.

    For them, they have to convince their company that they're going to really stay, but they're not always going to stay. So — yes, so the jobs and the economic issue is very complicated for the military families.


    And so since all the work you have been doing with the different wounded warriors charities and the money that you have been raising, what is the kind of — is there a consistent theme that kind of resonates year after year when you have the foundation events?


    Well, one is, don't forget. There is a — in a strange way, the wars are coming to an end-ish right now. So, it's not the same as it was eight years, where this was peaking out in terms of violence and injuries.

    But we just want to make sure that people know there are issues that are still there. And since our foundation deals with those that are wounded, largely badly wounded, we're now trying to see what's needed in the future.

    In the beginning, we were helping a lot of programs with the ICU levels, when people are still injured in the hospitals. And then we moved on to a lot they're dealing with and when they come back to their community for the first time, where they can disappear and not be — and just be ignored all the time.

    And now we're looking more to try to figure out the long-term kinds of help for their recovery, getting jobs, getting a great function, veterans helping veterans. It's a lot — much more into just more legitimate and creative kind of programs that exist out there.


    All right, Bob Woodruff.

    The documentary is called "The Homefront," airs on PBS tonight.

    Thanks so much.


    Thank you so much, Hari.

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