Inside a broadcast studio in Martinez under heated lights is a shadow box display of shimmering war medals and black-and-white photographs. Nathan Johnson points at the pieces of the military memorabilia, then notices his reflection on the glass case. He’s reluctant to explain the symbolism of the medals, despite the accomplishments they represent.
“To ask a veteran to display all their medals is asking them to display their personal accomplishments, instead of the accomplishments of their unit, their team,” he explained.
Five years ago, Johnson started the monthly, live, call-in talk show Veterans’ Voices out of the Contra Costa County Television (CCTV) studios. Expanding on his role as a veteran’s service officer, Johnson started the television program as a way to provide a stay-at-home resource for young and old veterans adjusting back to civilian life.
At first, the shadow box was a way to honor the son of his co-host, Kevin Graves; his son was killed in Iraq in 2006. Now, the monthly talk show features local veteran’s shadow boxes as a way to connect audiences with their stories.
Though most are too humble to display their shadow boxes on television, the opportunity provides veterans with a way to work through feelings of guilt tied to accepting individual recognition after returning from war, even though “several didn’t make it back alive,” Johnson said.
The look and feel of the talk show set— like Johnson himself—is a mix of stern orderliness and familiar comfort. It’s like a coffee shop for politicians: retro plaid couches where guests can sit and a cherrywood shelf lined with ornate globes, plastic plants, and history books. There are about 15 empty chairs for audience members to watch live tapings, which occur every third Monday of the month.
Johnson has a Leave it to Beaver-type television personality. He sits at a mahogany table facing the cameras: chiseled chin, rosy dimples, and a cheesy smile. He makes light-hearted jokes with the hip-looking CCTV crew members.
Later, downstairs in his office, there are maps covering the walls, cataloging places he was once stationed. Johnson has stories for the pile of coins, soldier figurines, certificates, photographs and medals scattered in his own unique shadow box, which his mother helped him make.
The Contra Costa veteran services office is a resource not only for low-income veterans, but also for residents who have served. Veterans who return from service are told they are eligible for Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits. But Johnson said there are challenges when it comes to eligibility: Veterans often don’t understand what benefits are available, it is confusing to know where to go, and the forms are usually complicated.
His office helps vets with disabilities, and assists with applying for health care. They’ll help with pension paperwork, and even burial benefits.
“We are not just helping fill out a form and submit it, but making sure the VA processes it correctly and that the outcome is correct and understandable,” Johnson said.
The show is Johnson’s way to provide the veteran community with alternative coverage of vet issues. An episode on service dogs, or a guest appearance by a child development expert have aired in the past.
“Sometimes, we pick a topic we feel can be better addressed than mainstream media,” Johnson said. “We will bring in some veterans, and get their perspectives, and also experts who have practice in the field. There’s always a mental health component.”
In September, he did an episode on the Veteran’s Treatment Court, which Johnson said are newly established courts that assist veteran’s specific needs. These courts provide opportunities for vets to have legal representation for minor criminal offenses, such as possessing a gun. It also allows them to get medical treatment for mental health issues — rather than be thrown into jail.
“You turn on the news and you hear about veterans and suicide, you hear about veterans and PTSD, you hear about veterans and homelessness, but it’s like 60 seconds,” Johnson said. “We go in-depth into these topics and spend a lot of time planning them out.”
Johnson understands the challenges that veterans face while transitioning back to civilian life, and a big part of that transition is “getting timely, quality and thorough care for mental and physical injuries.”
“Your job is very unique. Every day you get up and put your uniform on. You stand in formation. You smooth the flag. You’re called by your rank. You have a high level of responsibility and purpose,” Johnson reflected.
He then listed off a few Bay Area military bases, even asking the operations director for the Contra Costa County Office of Communications and Media, Chris Verdugo, how many bases were in Contra Costa County.
The answer: zero.
This means the locals who serve are never near families. “In general, you are located in a rural area. And you don’t go much outside that gate and interact with the non-military community,” Johnson said. “But then you leave that very abruptly. Maybe your contract ends. Now, you’re back in the community you left.”
Verdugo chimed in: “It’s like freedom without the structure.”
“Exactly!” Johnson agreed.
He continued: “You are without the uniform you felt pride in, and the buddies that had your back. They knew what your rank was, what your purpose was; they knew the level of expertise that you had, and appreciated it.
“Now, no one knows.”
Veterans’ Voices is facing a major challenge. Funds for public access television in California are limited— which might inevitably mean the end of one of the only media resources for veterans of its kind.
Grants given by the state to continue programming are evaluated each year, based on whether it has influenced veterans to utilize the services available to them in their transition. But that impact is difficult to quantify.
Although there’s no formal way to track the number of viewers, Johnson said positive feedback is given in thank you letters and appreciative comments from visiting veterans.
Johnson admits that, between August and February, it is hard to compete with Monday Night Football viewership. But he has hope the broadcast will continue to receive the funding it needs to provide veterans with a way to learn about the mental and physical health resources available.
“Just the other day, I had two vets come in and talk about things they had learned on the very last episode.” Johnson said, his smile gleaming.
With the poised posture of a solider, he stood against honey-gold paneled walls—watching as the sun disappeared quickly behind the hills.