'Coming Back' - At last, TV does right by veterans

If you want to feel good again about what's possible for public television, don't miss "Coming Back with Wes Moore," which airs Tuesday night on Maryland Public Television.

At a time in American life when we are seeing reports of veterans dying while waiting months and even years for basic care at Veterans Affairs hospitals, this documentary about soldiers returning to civilian life after combat in Iraq and Afghanistan is timely and deeply touching.

The best-selling Baltimore author, who served as a combat officer in Afghanistan, sets out to chronicle the stories of veterans who have survived the battlefield, in some cases only to face even deadlier challenges at home.

The degree of nuance and intimacy that Moore and his team achieve with the servicemen and servicewomen they profile goes beyond most documentary filmmaking into the realm of cultural anthropology. Moore understands that members of the military are a tribe unto themselves, with those who went to war a tribe within a tribe. "Coming Back" shows viewers how members of that tribe see the world, as the documentary catalogs the price some of them and their family members pay for their combat service.

"No one comes back from war unchanged," the 35-year-old Johns Hopkins University graduate tells viewers at the top of the first hour. "Some wounds are visible. For others, they are etched into our souls. As a nation, we thank our veterans for their service. But few of us know what war is like or how hard it is to return to a normal life after facing danger, suffering and death. I want to change that. I want you to meet some people that I know and admire."

The first veteran viewers meet is Marine Sgt. Christopher Phelan, who served 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now working as a Los Angeles police officer, a job in which he seems to be thriving. He is also raising a 1-year-old daughter by himself, because his wife, Star Lopez, a lawyer and Air Force captain, has been deployed to Afghanistan.

Phelan encouraged his wife to enlist, Moore says in the film, "because to them, service to country is a core family value."

Viewers start to get a sense of the toll that service can take as they eavesdrop on a series of Skype conversations between Lopez in Afghanistan and Phelan and his daughter at home. If the technology isn't failing the couple, their words are. Lopez is so pained during one of her failed attempts to engage her daughter via Skype that she gets up from the computer so her husband and daughter don't see her tears.

But that kind of frustration is mere prelude to what happens when Lopez returns to California. Each time she reaches for the little girl, the child runs to the father who was there with her during that first crucial year of life.

The disconnect between mother and daughter comes into sharp relief at the airport where family and friends, who had gathered to welcome Lopez back, look on with some embarrassment as the daughter resists her mother's attempts to hold her. And it only mounts at home as Lopez continues to gently try to work her way back into her daughter's world. You wonder what price the family will pay in coming years for its service to its country.

You also wonder what it took on the part of the producers — Boston's Powderhouse Productions and Moore's Omari Productions in Baltimore — to capture such private moments. To do the Skype sessions, there had to be crews in Afghanistan and Los Angeles on each end of the conversation. And a crew had to be there in the Phelan-Lopez home 24/7 to get some of the private, early-morning shots of Lopez reaching out to her daughter, and the little girl continuing to pull away.

"As we were looking at which vets we wanted to talk to, one thing that we knew is that they had to be transparent," Moore said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun last week. "We didn't want them saying, 'Well, you can come into this aspect of my life, but not this aspect.' We wanted people who said, 'We're willing to show you everything, flaws and successes.' "

One of the most powerful conversations Moore has in the film is with Bonnie Collins, the mother of a military school roommate of Moore's who killed himself after returning from Afghanistan. The suicide was all the more shocking because Brian Collins had started a job he seemed to like as an emergency medical technician and had just gotten married.

"When people are deployed, families are wired to the idea of possible death," Bonnie Collins tells Moore in a voice that's breaking with emotion. "But when they come back, we're no longer wired and we just expect the best, because all that danger is behind us."

And as she begins recounting the call from police saying they found the body of her son, the camera cuts to a tight shot of Moore holding her hand. It's a perfect snapshot of Moore's stance in this film as a member of the tribe who is still feeling the pain himself.

Moore tells viewers the film is about "rebirth," not suicide, but to its credit, "Coming Back" tries to capture, or at least suggest, the full range of experiences for returning veterans. Moore says Collins' suicide led him to start asking the question at the heart the film: How can some veterans like Phelan re-enter civilian life so successfully, while others like Collins can't?

One of the most complicated stories the documentary tells is that of Earl Johnson, a Baltimore veteran working as a community activist in his Oliver neighborhood. Johnson said he had served as a member of an elite reconnaissance unit in Afghanistan. As The Sun reported in July, he had not — and had gone AWOL after returning to the States and done jail time before coming to Baltimore.

On the plus side, the prominent inclusion of Johnson's narrative is hard evidence that "Coming Back" is willing to tackle the kinds of moral complexities TV is regularly accused of avoiding. But I suspect the film's resolution of the story line might leave some viewers questioning whether Moore's membership in the military tribe didn't perhaps make him more forgiving of Johnson than someone outside the tribe might have been.

Ultimately, while Moore denounces Johnson's lies, he also asks viewers not to ignore the "work" Johnson has done in Oliver.

"During the filming of the series, we discovered, on camera, that Earl Johnson fabricated his military service," Moore said in a statement to The Sun. "He served part of a tour, went absent without leave (AWOL) after returning from his partial tour, and went to jail prior to moving to Baltimore. The film tells this story as it unfolded during taping and as we verified the facts. Earl's work in Baltimore to make the Oliver community safer was also real, as was the impact his lie had on the group of veterans helping Earl and on his wife, whom he also lied to. We felt it was important to tell this entire story, accurately, and in the manner it was discovered during taping."

"Coming Back" is part of a larger PBS initiative "to increase dialogue and solutions as our nation's veterans transition to civilian life," according to a mission statement from the public broadcaster.

This is a conversation we as a nation need to have so that vets don't die while waiting for services they have earned. We should have had it after Vietnam, so it's a little late in coming.

But better late than never, Moore says.

"The goal of this series is that it doesn't end with this series," Moore told The Sun. "I want this to be part of a much bigger conversation that we're going to have, and not just among the television audience, but among citizens and constituents and policy makers, about what the end of war means. And what does it mean explicitly to the 2.6 million people who have actually been fighting them."


"Coming Back with Wes Moore" airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Parts 2 and 3 air May 20 and 27, respectively.