While reading through the accolades and achievements listed in Wes Moore’s biography, you can’t help but be impressed. Moore, 35, is a Rhodes Scholar, Afghan War veteran, former White House fellow, youth advocate and TV host. And those are just the greatest hits.
He’s also the best-selling author of The Other Wes Moore and host and executive producer of Coming Back With Wes Moore, a three-part PBS documentary miniseries set to debut May 13.
Moore, a former Army captain who deployed to Afghanistan in 2005-06, examines the challenges troops face and the successes they’ve achieved after returning from the front lines.
Moore took time to talk with On Patrol about his project, his own Army service and what inspired him to share the stories of the brave men and women profiled in the series.
Q: Wes, thank you for taking the time to talk with On Patrol. I want to start off by asking what Coming Back with Wes Moore is all about.
MOORE: Coming Back with Wes Moore is a PBS miniseries. And really what we wanted to do ... take a look and take a pause. As combat operations are coming to an end, we wanted to ask two questions. A, what does that mean for the 2.6 million people that actually fought in the wars. And also B, what should that mean to the rest of the country, you know, particularly as we’re coming off our nation’s longest wars.
So really what Coming Back is, it’s an examination of what it means to be an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran. And then from there, what then becomes our larger societal responsibility in order to make sure that “we support our troops” is not just a slogan, but that it actually has some weight behind it.
Q: In reporting for the miniseries, what are some of the success stories you’ve encountered along the way?
MOORE: It’s been remarkable. For example, there’s one man named Taylor. He’s 28 years old, a former infantry guy. Unfortunately, when he was in Iraq, he had his right leg taken off in an IED attack. There’s two things that he said he always wanted to do since he was a child. One was to be in the Army. And the other was to play baseball.
So he started an organization called VETSports. And really what VETSports does is they work with veterans and use athletics as a way of being able to heal. He’s now in the process of going through and joining the University of Tampa baseball team.
Another person is someone that some people might have heard of. Tammy Duckworth. She’s a congresswoman from Illinois who was also injured in Iraq. [Before entering Congress in 2013, Duckworth served as an Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs from 2009 to 2011.] She has really been a huge advocate for veterans and a huge advocate for injured service people.
Also, we have a woman named
Stacy Pearsall who was a combat photographer in Iraq and did two tours. She’s now started something called the Veterans Portrait Project. They go around the country taking pictures of veterans—almost giving veterans like a paparazzi treatment. Being able to highlight the really impressive veterans around the country has been one of the joys of the entire project.
Q: Those are some of the success stories. What are some of the difficulties you’ve encountered when reporting? What are the challenges?
MOORE: Well, I think quite honestly, one thing we’ve seen and one thing we’ve tried to show is that with all the different people there are challenges. That even with success stories, this is not an easy path for any of them—including myself. We don’t skim over the realities of combat for so many of our soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines. We don’t skim over the reality of suicide rates. We don’t skim over the reality of the unemployment rates. We don’t act like that doesn’t exist. We’re simply saying that’s not the whole story.
We all have our challenges and we all have our flaws. One person we highlight is a guy named Bobby Henline. He was in an IED attack and was knocked unconscious while his Humvee was on fire. He has third-degree burns over 50 percent of his body. We showed the rehab that Bobby’s going through and how there are challenges and there are setbacks. But at the same time, he keeps going. That’s one of the things we want to try to highlight to show to our audience about the strength of our veteran community.
Q: What difficulties did you encounter when you returned from your deployment to Afghanistan?
MOORE: When I first came back, there were a lot of things that I just was not anticipating. For example, I had a real problem with light when I first came back.
Also my family, along with a lot of other families, [has] this kind of weird dynamic where you’re not sure what to ask. You’re not sure which questions are OK and which questions are off limits, so you just say nothing.
One of the reasons I wanted to examine these issues was because I saw firsthand how difficult this transition can be for people.
Q: I’d like to ask you about your service overseas and what your job was [in Afghanistan], where you were stationed. What was your experience like?
MOORE: I first joined the Army back in 1996. … In 1998, I actually became an officer. Then I was in the Reserves for a while, and then went back on active duty in 2004 and deployed in 2005. I was an infantry officer, a military police officer and then became special ops when I joined the 82nd Airborne Division.
We really had two main things that we had to do. One was to engage and draw offensive engagements. There was also the Afghan Reconciliation Program. [The Afghan-led initiative offered former insurgents an opportunity to renounce violence and swear allegiance to the Afghan government.] Myself and my soldiers, it was our responsibility to help build out the U.S. support plans for the program, so we worked a lot with the Afghan government. We worked a lot with Afghan special forces. And it ended up becoming a fascinating year—a hard year. It was a hard deployment, but a really powerful year in terms of just personal growth and personal strength.
I’ve learned more lessons about leadership and strength and courage from my soldiers than I have, frankly, from anyone else I’ve ever met in a suit. You know, people like Lieutenant Colonel Mike Stengel, who has now gone on seven deployments over nine years, or another friend who had two of his children born while he was deployed.
You know, this kind of stuff is not easy. I think for a lot of people, they sometimes underestimate just how challenging it is and just how thankful we really should be for people who are giving it all up, things they’ll never get back, and they’re doing it for a passion and a love of something bigger than themselves.
Q: What can Americans do to help ease the transitions service members face?
MOORE: I think that a lot of times, we develop these caricatures [of troops]. And it’s either one or the other. Either they’re these GI Joe superheroes or they’re these PTSD monsters. That’s kind of the impression that everybody gets where it’s this drastic one-or-the-other impression which in many cases is not only inaccurate, it’s disrespectful.
What I wanted to do is just to show people that these are everyday, regular people who are living amongst us, who are serving amongst us, who are working amongst us.
And I think it’s OK to be able to be curious [and ask questions]. I think we can break down a lot of walls and a lot of stereotyping that exists.
Q: What do you think it means for Americans—the vast majority of whom didn’t serve in Iraq or Afghanistan—now that some of the most productive members of our society back home?
MOORE: What’s really interesting is that what I think is kind of a common thread for military veterans is that we are all graduates of, in my opinion, the greatest leadership training program that the country has to offer. So whether your specialty is accounting or whether your specialty is an infantryman or whatever, there’s one thing that every single person has, and that’s [being] a leader. You know, they’re forced into it. That’s the way our system is structured.
So I’m really hoping that as a larger society, we can make that reintegration process a lot smoother by simply saying we want to help veterans, not because it’s some kind of charity, not because we want to feel better about ourselves, but because these people are huge assets.
Plus, you’re arguably making a very big mistake for the future of your business, nonprofit or government agency if you’re not incorporating the leadership skills that these [veterans] have.
Chad Stewart is the senior editor of ON★PATROL.