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Veteran filmmaker aims to show plight of struggling former soldiers

For many military service members, returning home and transitioning into civilian life can be challenging. Now, one filmmaker intends to help bring about change by shining a spotlight on those struggles.

"We owe these men and women. We owe them a lot," says director Ric Burns in an interview with CNBC's "On the Money".

He added: "If they're going to go lay down their lives and leave parts of themselves on the battlefield, every American has an obligation to make sure when they (veterans) come home, they don't struggle."

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Burns, the acclaimed filmmaker and director known for the PBS series "New York: A Documentary Film" and co-writing his brother Ken's award-winning documentary, "The Civil War" has turned his camera lens toward another battle story.

His latest film, "Debt of Honor," examines the way the American government and society have regarded disabled veterans throughout history. The narrative begins in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War and continuing through today's conflicts in the Middle East.

A file photo of the U.S. military in Tbilisi, Georgia.
David Mdzinarishvili | Reuters
A file photo of the U.S. military in Tbilisi, Georgia.

The neglect of veterans has a long history, but the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have shown just how acute the problem is. According to a Joint Economic Committee Senate report, America's 19 million military veterans are among some of the nation's poorest citizens. Of veterans between the ages of 18 and 34, 12.5 percent are living in poverty.

The Veteran's Administration reports nearly 4 million veterans are receiving disability benefits that range from $100 to $3,000 a month, depending on the severity of injury. Severity of disability is scaled from 0 to 100 percent, of which 957,504 disabled veterans have a rating of 70 percent or higher.

Taking him nearly two years to complete the project, Burns says he wanted to ensure this film was narrated in the voice of actual soldiers who laid down their lives for civilians. Burns added that group benefits the most from the sacrifice that soldiers make.

There is an "enormous gap between the military service and civilian experience and [there's] about 1 percent of American population have served in the military," he says. "We don't have any national draft, so it's almost as if the military is its own ethnic group with an experience that is set apart from the majority of Americans."

The film combines personal stories told by distinguished disabled veterans. The program features interviews with some of the country's most prominent disabled veterans, including Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.); former U.S. Senator and Veterans Affairs Administrator Max Cleland; former Garrison Commander of Fort Belvoir, Col. Gregory Gadson — a double amputee veteran of the war in Iraq; and actor, motivational speaker and Iraq War Army veteran J.R. Martinez.

"This is a project that has meant more to me than any other I've ever had," said Burns.

"Of the 50 to 60 hours of programming I've been privileged to be a part of in one way or another, this hour means more than all of them put together."

Debt of Honor is set to air nationally on PBS at 9pmEST on November 10th.


On the Money airs on CNBC Sundays at 7:00 pm, or check listings for air times in local markets.