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Vets use podcasts to bridge the civilian-military divide

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Thom Tran was only four days into his first deployment when he was shot in the head.

A communications sergeant attached to a Special Forces unit, Tran was on a patrol near Tallil Air Base in southern Iraq in 2003 when he got hit.

He quickly got back to work after receiving a few staples and a tetanus shot, but complications forced his medical discharge from the Army a year after returning from overseas.

The transition to civilian life was a difficult one. Having discovered how helpful it was to discuss his troubles with other veterans, he launched a podcast called “Battle Scars” last year.

Tran is now one of a growing number of veterans using podcasts to tell their stories, in the hopes of raising awareness of military and veteran issues and to reach a civilian audience that has become inured to news from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Notable guests on Tran’s program include Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth — who lost both legs as an Army helicopter pilot in Iraq — and former NFL player and Green Beret Nate Boyer.

“I know exactly how healing talking can be,” said Tran, who used stand-up comedy as a form of therapy to get himself out of his post-Army funk.

“What ‘Battle Scars’ does is it takes a soldier or veteran, puts them in front of another combat-wounded soldier who knows exactly what they’re talking about, exactly how they feel, what it’s like to wear that uniform,” he added. “That frees them up to talk.”

Other major military-themed podcasts are regularly atop the iTunes charts in the Government and Organizations category, including “Mentors for Military,” a collaborative effort among several Army veterans; SOFREP Radio, which bills itself as providing “special operations military news and straight talk with the guys;” and “Zero Blog Thirty,” which host Chaps McNealy sees as a kind of “virtual VFW hall” for listeners.

McNealy, like Tran, was medically discharged after being shot in Iraq, where he was serving as a dog handler for the Marine Corps. His co-host, who goes by the pseudonym Captain Cons, was an Army artillery officer who attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

While Tran’s discussions are focused more on single veterans and their personal stories, “Zero Blog Thirty” is more free-form, with McNealy, Cons and others speaking on politics, veteran issues in the news, and sometimes just things they find interesting that have nothing whatsoever to do with military culture.

“It feels like the camaraderie of having a platoon room,” McNealy said.

Sometimes the conversations do take a more serious turn. Around the holidays, the podcast took on veteran homelessness, which McNealy said is a major issue in his current home of San Antonio.

“(For that show) I looked for somebody who speaks out on that or organizations that can help and donate money and do what we can,” he said. “An important part of being a lifelong Marine or a lifelong veteran is taking advantage of the platform you have and helping others.”

Tran and McNealy both say they’re trying to help bridge the gap in understanding between their civilian and servicemember listeners.

“I want civilians who listen to the show to say, ‘Wow! They’re not all knuckle-dragging grunts, not all the stereotypical Hol-lywood airborne Rangers,’” Tran said. “We are so much more.”

With the war in Afghanistan entering its 17th year, McNealy said, it’s understandable that many Americans have tuned out the conflict, given the quicker news cycle and a raft of domestic stories monopolizing attention.

“I do feel like that it’s often times forgotten, but that’s a natural progression for something that’s been going on for more than 15 years at this point,” he said. “It’s incredibly hard to keep anything in the public consciousness with a 24-hour news cycle. How many ways can you say ‘servicemembers getting their limbs blown off by an IED’ and keep it fresh?”

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