SANTA MÓNICA, CA – The car door opens, then knocks. Ignition rumbles. The music roars. Hands fixed on the steering wheel. Ten and two. Then we left, walking the empty streets of Santa Monica before dawn.
Milo Ventimiglia is as composed as a Top Gun pilot. The first gear, then the second, but that great way where the speed explodes with a pinch and the car lights blur.
Assembling a shotgun is an exercise in grip strength. The white knuckles, the wheels screaming, the heart beating, the music to the beat. Today’s feature: “Red Eyes” by The War on Drugs.
For the man who has been considered the father of the United States for the past six years on NBC’s “This Is Us” series, this is simply controlled chaos. To me, a veteran of the U.S. Navy in Afghanistan, the whole experience: the dawn. car ride, the story you’re reading and how I got to work on your TV show is equally surreal and ridiculous.
It is also my own melancholy — and ultimately therapeutic — reflection of my war experiences and later life.
We jumped on I-10. Head east on the Santa Monica Highway. Sailing in the heavy morning traffic, we move and weave and accelerate ahead of fleeting cars and 18-wheel trucks. A game of chess fed at a brute speed.
I think four years ago. He had interviewed the creator of “This Is Us”, Dan Fogelman, and the renowned American novelist Tim O’Brien, who wrote “The Things They Carried” and had been hired to help work out the Vietnam War story for the season. The interview consisted of reviewing the plausibility of the show: the mixture of fiction with memories of a real-life war and its aftermath.
An hour before the call, browsing Instagram posts, I discovered that a Marine with whom he had served in Afghanistan had taken his own life nine months earlier. Artillery sergeant. Vaughn Canlas was an infantryman turned collector of human intelligence. He was 39 years old and over 16 years of age when he was shot in the head.
Once I phoned Fogelman and O’Brien, I stayed. The only thing I remember from the interview is a flood of apologies from me as I struggled to ask my questions through tears. Fogelman said I was being too hard on myself and what should happen if I was in California.
Three months later, in January 2019, I’m walking from one stage to another, touring the sets of “This Is Us” and riding bays. Fogelman asks: Would you be willing to talk to the writers for about 15 minutes? The idea was to help create a new character: Cassidy Sharp, played by Jennifer Morrison.
Two hours later, I was offered a job.
Cassidy Sharp’s development into a room full of strangers was ultimately a profound draw from my own inner struggle to understand life after the war. Along the way, the program’s writing room has become my therapy room, which, according to Fogelman, is commonplace.
“That’s our program,” he told me. “I always felt that the show, if you had to choose one thing, was about losing a parent: about the pain and the trauma that comes with that unexpected loss.”
I identified. I told the writers about the curious Afghan boy I saw stepping on an improvised explosive device. I told them the guilt of my survivor. About my depression.
I also told them about how Lance Cpl. Charles “Seth” Sharp (who inspired Cassidy’s last name) bled in front of his friends. About my loss of innocence and purpose and my crumbling marriage. About when my ex-wife pulled a 9mm Beretta out of my mouth.
Fogelman asked me if I hated Hollywood performances of service members and veterans. To me, they were caricatured tropes that portrayed an individual as incredibly heroic or incredibly broken. No shades of gray.
That is not the reality. Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, I said, still have bills to pay and families to care for. So we often share and pretend we are fine.
Even when we are not.
At some level, all those affected by the war die.
Lives are lost. Innocence too. There is a permanent devastation that occurs on the topography of the human condition: a before and an after. That experience is complex and multilayered, and a true representation of a veteran should include those aspects.
I vividly remember the night of September 24, 2019. It was a day after my father’s birthday. He had died four years earlier, and his death was the reason I started watching the show.
I remember being asked if I was excited to see Cassidy Sharp’s presentation during the fourth season premiere of “This is Us.” I was not. He was terrified. What if people didn’t look or care?
The episode paid tribute to two of my friends who died in Afghanistan: Sharp and Lance Cpl. Jeremy Lasher. But the scene I remember most is Cassidy in the Navy Corps uniform returning home from the war. She gets out of a taxi and is greeted by friends and family. In the background, someone is holding a handwritten sign that says, “Welcome Sharp again.”
My Sharp didn’t understand that. His family did not have that experience. But 7.7 million viewers heard his name. Sharp’s father, Ric, told Stars and Stripes in an interview, “It gave me chills. I cried. Now I’m crying.”
“I wanted everyone I knew to see it: family, friends, people in the area,” he said. “I was proud and excited to know that his name is being remembered. I firmly believe that when you say their names, they are not forgotten.”
I hear the sound of Ventimiglia’s palms as he tries to silence production assistants and cameramen on stage 20 of Paramount.
He is the director of this episode, number 608, which aired last week. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles singing “Ooo Baby Baby” reverberates on the walls as the camera captures actors Griffin Dunne and Vanessa Bell Calloway dancing in the background.
In the foreground, Cassidy Sharp is there, pretending to be right in front of her son and friend Kevin Pearson (played by Justin Hartley), but suffering in silence over how the war in Afghanistan has just ended. Her memories fluctuate between her broken marriage and her broken promises.
In the mind of the character – and in mine – there is a repeat of last August, when thousands of desperate Afghans spilled on the asphalt of Hamid Karzai International Airport, fearful of living under another Taliban regime. The memory of a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane taking off while several people are crushed under its wheels flashes in my mind.
I think about how I grabbed the door handle of Ventimiglia’s car on the way to Paramount. I think of the Afghans and their grips, how they clung to the bottom of the plane as it gained altitude, how they fell to death. My hands grow. Stress tightens muscles. My breathing gets hard. I cry.
On screen, Dunne, who plays Vietnam veteran Nicky Pearson, senses that something is wrong with Cassidy. That’s because of the design. The conversation between me and “This Is Us” writers Jake Schnesel and Kevin Falls in the months leading up to filming focused on the connection between Vietnam and Afghanistan veterans, and in particular the sins they both feel are the burden they must bear. .
To some degree, I think veterans are unreliable narrators in their own war stories. They are always inside looking out, and that perspective, while unique and important, may be limited to a narrow field of view.
And in the absence of any coherent narrative about the wars in Vietnam or Afghanistan, it is easy for soldiers to take responsibility for things that are not their fault: to reduce the war to their own small, horrible experiences, as an army veteran. exposed the converted writer Adam Linehan.
It becomes his war, a war of the mind. And in their war, they feel like the bad guys.
So in that story, the United States has not left the Afghans behind; Cassidy did. Jack did not return all his soldiers alive. Nicky feels unforgivable for accidentally killing an innocent child in Vietnam. And for me, it’s been years of playing the game that could have prevented a child — a child — practically — from disappearing into a cloud of fire dust and torn flesh.
After a withdrawal or a surrender or the signing of a peace treaty, memories of the war are not limited to archiving and freezing. They flow and ebb as time passes for those who were there and for the affected families as the reverberations of violence spread outward.
My conclusion from my experience with the writing process of “This Is Us” is as follows: In a war story, and perhaps also in real life, there may be no better person than a veteran who saw the fall of Saigon in 1975 to help a veteran of Afghanistan. navigating the emotional impact of the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Perhaps fiction can offer the lesson of how wars of the mind should end, with a connection made, with something added, and a way forward in sight, rather than just a story of all that was lost along the way. A feeling that even if we were not well, we could be.
James LaPorta is an investigative journalist for The Associated Press, which covers military and national security issues. He is a former U.S. Navy soldier and a veteran of the Afghan war. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JimLaPorta
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Seek consolation by helping a television program understand war
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