By Debra Kaufman
Special to TelevisionWeek
More than 10 percent of the soldiers killed and wounded in the Iraq War have come from California, a fact that sparked interest among producers at “California Connected,” the state’s only statewide newsmagazine and a joint project of public TV stations KCET, KPBS, KQED and KVIE.
“We were exploring various injuries and there was a lot reported on physical injuries and amputations,” executive producer Bret Marcus said. “In talking to a lot of experts, we learned that traumatic brain injury (TBI) was the signature injury of the war.”
The half-hour special, “War Stories From Ward 7-D,” was anchored and reported by Lisa McRee, who visits Ward 7-D at the Palo Alto (Calif.) Veterans Administration Hospital Polytrauma Unit, one of only four in the country to deal with TBIs. There, four U.S. Army soldiers describe how they got their injuries, the path of their rehabilitation and their frustrations and hopes for the future.
“The hospital was understandably reluctant to give us the kind of access we were looking for, but they eventually trusted us based on our past record,” said Mr. Marcus, who sent the hospital officials copies of other “California Connected” programs. Program producer John Dann had also done a documentary on injuries suffered by soldiers in the Vietnam War, which helped to open doors at the hospital.
Initially, “California Connected” producers hoped to create a much broader documentary. “We envisioned that we would speak to political leaders,” Mr. Marcus said. “We shot some additional officials and doctors. When we shot at the Palo Alto hospital, we realized that there were such incredible stories to tell that we wanted to leave out the politics and the public officials and just tell the story in their [the veterans’] own words.”
The stories are riveting and heart-rending. One soldier, an immigrant who joined the U.S. Army out of gratitude to her new country, cannot remember being pregnant or giving birth to her daughter. Another soldier lost part of his skull to an IED blast and defied doctors’ predictions that he would never walk again. Another didn’t recognize his brother who had come to visit.
Perhaps most horrifying is the assessment of VA neuro-psychologist Dr. Harriet Zeiner that thousands of Iraqi War veterans are unaware that they have suffered traumatic brain injury, which can present as behavior problems or personality changes. The program makes it clear that a complete recovery may be out of reach for these soldiers, many of whom will live with the consequences of TBI for the rest of their lives.
The deputy under-secretary of health for Veterans Administration in Washington, D.C., called the production “magnificent,” Mr. Marcus said, and asked permission to show the documentary to veterans’ groups across the country. “We’ve got dozens and dozens of e-mails,” he said. “The majority are from viewers who thanked us for telling these stories in depth. They cried throughout the whole program, and said it helped them to understand the issues in Iraq much better.” The producers have since produced a short update to the program.
“Winning a prestigious national award like the DuPont helps to publicize the story and get it out to a wider audience, which is why we produced it,” Mr. Marcus said. “A Columbia DuPont Award also validates this kind of serious reporting. And, lastly, despite the fact that we’ve won over 50 awards and our audience has grown by leaps and bounds, “California Connected” is a public TV program. I’m hoping that winning a DuPont says something to our current and future funders.”