A lot of young veterans feel lost when they return home from a war zone. They've often been trained for very specific combat jobs, which don't always translate well to civilian life.
But one 25-year-old former Marine, who was trained to cover fierce firefights in Iraq as a combat correspondent, has found an equally compelling calling as a civilian: He's telling war-related stories that are happening right here at home while the combat continues to rage in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The parallels between this job and what I did as a combat correspondent are pretty strong," said Jan Bender in the Culver City, California, studio where he hosts "In Their Boots." The live, interactive Web show combines documentary-style stories about veterans who have returned home, families left behind by loved ones who are deployed and an interactive Web chat with the people featured, as well as experts on the issues and questions from the Internet audience.
"I'm still dealing with service members and their families, but also vets that have already stepped out of uniform," Bender said. "We're just kind of a little different angle. Whereas before I was talking about everything that it took to build up to prepare to go to war, now I'm dealing with those who have gone to war, come home and maybe have issues because of that or dealing with struggles."
If Jan looks familiar, that's because we first met him on "MTV News Presents: Iraq Uploaded" when he spoke to us about the footage he shot of the battle of Fallujah back in 2004. (If you've seen any footage of that grueling fight, chances are Jan filmed some of it.) But he said he considers his work here to be just as vital.
"When you watch the news you hear '13 dead in Baghdad' or 'Seven injured in Fallujah,' but that's where people lose track of the story," Bender said. "So what happened to those seven injured? What happened to those families? How does that translate in America, to populace here? We're just trying to raise those stories up — and not just stories about death and the people who are injured, but people that are just changed, maybe even in positive ways."
With the help a team of talented editors and producers, Bender has done three live episodes of the show and is planning on continuing the weekly broadcasts until at least the end of the year. The show aims to be non-partisan, and it largely achieves that goal. The project was, however, organized by the Brave New Foundation, a political organization that has released so-called "attack videos" against Republican politicians and members of President Bush's cabinet. Bender remains adamant that the show is about people and not politics.
"We're not here to debate about the war," he said. "I think everyone else is doing a fine job at tearing the argument at the seams and trying to figure out who is wrong and who is right. We're looking at the challenges and the hardships and the struggles and the triumphs they experience from having served, or loving someone who served, or supporting someone who served in these conflicts."
And who better to tell those stories than a young man who was there? In fact, the show didn't recruit Bender — who looks the part of a rugged former-Marine-turned-television-host — he found it ... by applying to be an intern!
"I was a junior at Ball State University looking for a summer internship and I ran into the producers," Bender said. "One thing led to another, and then they decided I'd be the best man for the job!"
"He was perfect," said producer Amanda Spain. "We couldn't have asked for anyone better. I had a whole list of people to call, and then we met him. And since he's a veteran, other vets really open up to him in ways they won't with me."
For his part, Bender is still getting used to being the face of the show. "I've never had that much desire to be on this side of the camera," he said. "I just love telling stories."
And so far, he seems to be adjusting to the bright lights and hi-def cameras pretty well. His Marine Corps buddies? Well ...
"The Marines that I served with are gonna bust my b---s about this pretty hard," he said. "They always thought it was funny that I was a camera guy in the Marines to begin with, but I'm prepared to take the bashings."
"In Their Boots" broadcasts live Wednesdays at 7 p.m. ET. You can also watch previous episodes on the Web site.