Frank DeVita, a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, served in World War II
Duery Felton Jr., a U.S. Army veteran, served in Vietnam
As a producer and director on American Veteran, Leah Williams learned some long-held secrets.
"I had veterans who told me things I don't think they told some of their spouses or their children," she says. "It was an incredible privilege and an honor for me to sit and to listen to their stories."
Those narratives form the four-part documentary series premiering October 26 on PBS, in which veterans from all branches of the armed forces reflect on their experiences.
Williams directed episodes three and four, which focus on how veterans return home from the battlefield and adjust to civilian life; she also produced all four installments. Stephen Ives, the founder of Insignia Films, which produced the series, directed the first two episodes; those take viewers through boot camp and deployment.
Along with story producer Kathleen Horan, Williams and Ives interviewed more than 40 veterans for the series. They include:
• Frank DeVita, a World War II Coast Guard vet who opens up about events on D-Day that have given him nightmares for 70 years;
• Duery Felton Jr., a Vietnam vet from the Army's First Infantry Division who relates how generations of Black soldiers have put their lives on the line for their country, only to face violence back at home;
• Shoshana Johnson, an Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient whose father was in the Navy Reserve. who served during Operation Iraqi Freedom and was the first Black female prisoner of war.
Williams led the casting process with a commitment to showcasing veterans from various branches, eras, racial and ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations, as well as disabled veterans.
"You have to be incredibly deliberate and intentional," she says. "It doesn't just happen. It's like, 'Oh, we'd love to have someone from the Coast Guard because the Coast Guard rarely gets to be in these films.' Well, that only happens if you say, 'We're definitely going to cast someone from the Coast Guard, and more than one person.'"
Several notable veterans narrate American Veteran, including The Price Is Right host Drew Carey, who served in the Marine Corps Reserves; Senator Tammy Duckworth, a Purple Heart recipient who flew combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom as a pilot for the Illinois Army National Guard; Cherokee American actor Wes Studi (Reservation Dogs), an Army veteran who served in Vietnam; and actor-author J.R. Martinez, season 13 winner of Dancing with the Stars and an Army veteran who survived a roadside bombing in Iraq.
Williams hopes civilians will come away from the series with a greater understanding of what Americans ask members of the military to do for them and how their service affects their lives. "We're not always as plugged in as we should be," says Williams, "There were things I didn't even know about my own father's service until I started working on this project."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 11, 2021