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Find consolation by helping TV shows understand war National obituaries

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SANTA MONICA, CA (AP) – The car door opens, then slaps. The ignition rumbles. Sounds like music. The arms are attached to the steering wheel. Ten and two. Then we set off, racing through the empty side streets of Santa Monica until dawn.

Mila Ventimiglia is composed as a Top Gun pilot. The first gear squeaks, then the second – but in such a cool way, when the speed explodes and the car’s headlights are washed away.

Riding a gun is an exercise in grip strength. The bones are white, the wheels are screaming, the heart is beating, the music is roaring. Today’s topic: “Red Eyes” from The War on Drugs.

For a man who has been called the father of America on NBC for the past six years “It’s us,” it’s just controlled chaos. For me, a U.S. Marine veteran in Afghanistan, the whole experience – the morning car ride, the story you read, and the way I came to work on his TV show – is equally surreal and funny.

It is also my own melancholic – and, ultimately, therapeutic – reflection of my military experience and life afterwards.

Jump to I-10. East on the Santa Monica Freeway. Sailing in the busy morning traffic, we swing, weave and spin past fast cars and 18-wheeled semi-trucks. A chess game that is fueled by immense speed.

I remember four years ago. I did an interview with the creator of “It’s Us” Dan Vogelman and the famous American novelist Tim O’Brien, who wrote “What they were carrying” and was hired to help create the Vietnam War plot in the show’s third season. The interview was to discuss the truth of the show – mixing fiction with memories of the real war and its aftermath.

An hour before the call, flipping through Instagram posts, I learned that a Marine I had served with in Afghanistan committed suicide nine months ago. artillery sergeant. Von Kanlas was an infantryman who became a collector of human scouts. He was 39 years old and he had over 16 years of service when he shot himself in the head.

As soon as I called with Vogelman and O’Brien, I broke down. All I remember about the interview is a barrage of apologies from me when I have a hard time asking my questions through tears. Vogelman said I was too hard on myself and that I should call in when I find myself in California.

Three months later, in January 2019, I walk from one sound stage to another, touring the stages of “This Is Us” and editing platforms. Vogelman asks: Would I like to talk to the writers for about 15 minutes? The idea was to help create a new character: Cassidy Sharpe, played by Jennifer Morrison.

Two hours later I was offered a job.

Cassidy Sharpe’s elaboration in a room full of strangers was, ultimately, a profound extraction of my own inner struggle for an understanding of life after the war. Along the way, the writing room turned into my therapy room – which, according to Vogelman, is commonplace.

“This is our show,” he told me. “I’ve always felt that the show, when you had to choose one, was about losing your parents – about grief and the trauma that comes with this unexpected loss.”

I decided. I told the writers about curious afghan boy I watched as he stepped on an improvised explosive device. I told them about the guilt of my survivor. About my depression.

I also told them about how Lance Corporal. Charles “Seth” Sharpe (who inspired Cassidy’s last name) was bleeding in front of his friends. About my loss of innocence and purpose and my ruined marriage. About the time my ex-wife pulled out of my mouth a 9mm Beretta.

Vogelman asked me what I hate in Hollywood images of servicemen and veterans. For me, these were caricature trails that portrayed a man as incredibly heroic or incredibly broken. No shades of gray.

This is not a reality. I said that veterans with post-traumatic stress still need to pay the bills and families they need to take care of. So we often divide into parts and pretend that we are all right.

At some level, everyone affected by the war is dying.

Life is lost. Innocence too. There is a constant destruction that occurs on the topography of the human condition – before and after. This experience is complex and multi-layered, and a true reflection of a veteran should include these aspects.

I remember the night of September 24, 2019. It was the day after my father’s birthday. He died four years earlier and his death was the reason I started watching the show.

I remember being asked if I was happy to see Cassidy Sharp’s performance during the premiere of the fourth season of “It’s Us”. I was not. I was scared. What if people didn’t watch or didn’t care?

This episode paid tribute to two of my friends who died in Afghanistan: Sharpe and Lance. Jeremy Lesher. But the most memorable scene is Cassidy in the form of a Marine returning home from the war. She gets out of the taxi and is greeted by friends and family. In the background is someone holding a handwritten sign that reads, “Welcome, Sharpe.”

My Sharp didn’t realize it. His family has not had such an experience. But his name was heard by 7.7 million viewers. Dad Sharpe, Rick, said Stars and Stripes in an interview: “It made me shiver. I cried. I’m rushing now. “

“I wanted everyone I knew to see it – family, friends, people in the area,” he said. – I was proud and just excited to learn that his name is remembered. I firmly believe that when you call their names, they are not forgotten. “

I hear Ventimiglia clapping his hands as he tries to reassure the assistant directors and cameramen on the Paramount 20 sound stage.

He is the director of this episode – number 608, which aired last week. Smokey Robinson and Miracles sing “Ooo Baby Baby” reflected from the walls as the camera captures actors Griffin Dunn and Vanessa Bell Calloway dancing in the background.

In the foreground, Cassidy Sharpe pretends that everything is fine in front of her son and friend Kevin Pearson (played by Justin Hartley), but silently suffers because of the just-ended war in Afghanistan. Her memories fluctuate between a broken marriage and unfulfilled promises.

In the minds of the character – and mine – it is a repeat of last August, when thousands of desperate Afghans poured on the asphalt of Hamid Karzai International Airport, fearing to live under a different Taliban regime. The memory of the US Air Force C-17 transport plane, which takes off when several people crash under its wheels, flashes in my eyes.

I think about how I grabbed the door handle in Ventimiglia’s car while driving to Paramount. I think of the Afghans and their grip as they clung to the bottom of the plane as it gained altitude as they fell to his death. My hands stick. Stress tightens my muscles. My breathing is getting heavy. I’m crying.

On screen, Dan, who plays Vietnam veteran Nicki Pearson, feels that something is wrong with Cassidy. That is, by design. The conversation between me and the writers “It’s Us” Jake Schnezel and Kevin Falls a few months before the filming focused on the connection between veterans of Vietnam and Afghanistan – and in particular on the sins they both consider a burden.

At some level, I believe, veterans are unreliable narrators in their own military stories. They always look from the inside, and this perspective – though unique and important – may be limited by a narrow field of vision.

And in the absence of any holistic account of the wars in Vietnam or Afghanistan, it is easy for soldiers to take responsibility for what is not their fault – to reduce the war to their small, horrific experiences, as veteran Army writer Adam Linehan put it.

It becomes their war – the war of the mind. And in their war they feel like bad guys.

So in this storyline the US did not leave the Afghans; Cassidy did. Jack did not return all his soldiers alive. Nicki feels unforgivable for the accidental murder of an innocent boy in Vietnam. And for me, it’s years of playing a “what-if” game that could prevent a little boy – practically a toddler – from disappearing in a dusty cloud of fire and torn flesh.

After the withdrawal or capitulation or signing of the peace treaty, the memories of the war do not just disappear and do not freeze. They flow and flow over time for those who were there and for the families affected when the rebounds of violence swept out.

My conclusion from my experience with the process of writing “It’s Us” is this: in the story of the war and perhaps in real life, there may be no better person than the veteran who watched the fall of Saigon in 1975 to help the Afghan veteran focus on the emotional impact of the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Perhaps fiction can offer a lesson in how the war of the mind should end – an established connection, something added and a visible way forward, rather than just a story of all that has been lost along the way. The feeling that even if we are not all right, we can be.

James Laporta is an investigative journalist for The Associated Press, which covers national security and military affairs. He is a former U.S. Marine and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JimLaPorta

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or distributed without permission.

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