Being the always timely reviewer/blogger/writer of words that I am, it has dawned on me it has been six months since the end of the first run of Thom Tran’s podcast, Battle Scars. Even after half a year, It is a podcast that stays with you, even if you’ve not got around to writing about it. The premise is simple, former US Army Sergeant turned comedian Thom Tran interviews veterans of the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In each episode, they talk about their experiences and the long term effects their war has had upon them. What makes Battle Scars truly special is the openness that Tran is able to achieve with his interviewees. That could be due to the fact he was shot in the head on his fourth day in Iraq, bandaged himself up and kept going. He knows, and this allows Tran and his interviewees to have a level of respect between each other that allows for a discussion that will make you laugh, shock you from time to time and, rather often, shed tears.
I found out about Tran and Battle Scars through the wonderful medium of BBC Radio 4. Radio 4 is the greatest of all the BBC’s channels. Forget the telly, Radio 4 is the most consistently informative and entertaining platform going. At 5pm of a weekday, Eddie Mair takes over the airwaves with PM, an evening news show that is as essential as the morning’s Today program. Regularly they have longer form interviews with people that can run 15-20 minutes, or 15-20 minutes each night for a week. The interviews are remarkable. Probably the most heartbreaking was the regular slot where Mair and his BBC colleague Steve Hewlett got together each week to discuss Hewlett’s battle with cancer. They chatted openly and even had Hewlett’s sons on to talk about the fight, which Hewlett sadly lost. You can listen to the journey here, it is uplifting and heartbreaking. It was in November 2017 that Mair welcomed Tran, the vet turned comedian, onto the show for a interview. You can listen to the interview here. It is a remarkable chat and really helps you to see a little deeper into Battle Scars.
The interviews are with all different kinds of servicemen and women. From medics to snipers to morgue workers seeing first hand the bodies coming home. As someone who has never served, but is one of the millions who reads and watches and wonders, these interviews show us the soldier just doing their job and being forever changed by it. Some of Tran’s interviewees are religious, others not. Some seem to have had enjoyed their time in country, others not so much. Some have suffered more abuse at home than they did in theatre. Some have gone on to be TV Stars, Senators and NFL stars, others have just tried to return to the normal. Yet the honesty of the conversations and Tran’s willingness to open up about himself, in turn, gives faith to his interviewee to do the same. The honesty is, at times, searing and hard to listen too. There is anger and sadness and confusion and, more often than not, humour and memories of friendships forged by fire. I listen to most of my podcasts sat in traffic on the M25 on my way home from work. More than once, I cried in the car listening to Battle Scars.
To temper the tears, each week, I had the same (tiny, greedy) complaint with the show. They average at just under a half hour and you find yourself, constantly, wanting to spend more time with these guys. Their experiences are beyond what most of us can comprehend, but they are all eloquent, funny and very human. And this is what makes Battle Scars such a supreme example of the podcast form, its freedom to have these discussions, package them so well and leave us wanting to spend more time with the subject of that week’s show. Not even to talk about their war, but just to have a glass of something with them and have a laugh.
I am not sure when, or if, Battle Scars will return. But, the 10 episodes that are available wherever you grab your podcasts from, are a truly remarkable achievement. The work that Tran, his producers Ryan Dilley, Shara Morris, A.C. Valdez and the rest of the Panoply team do for this show is special and their guests deserve time in your ears. That sounds wrong, but they really do.