Finding solace through helping a TV show understand war

SANTA MONICA, Calif. – The car door opens, then slams. The ignition rumbles. Music roars. Hands fixed on the wheel. Ten and two. Then we’re off, hurtling down empty Santa Monica side streets before dawn.

Milo Ventimiglia is as composed as a Top Gun pilot. First gear grinds, then second — but in that cool way where velocity bursts with a swish and car lights blur.

Riding shotgun is an exercise in grip strength. Knuckles white, wheels screaming, heart pounding, music blaring. Today’s feature: “Red Eyes” by The War on Drugs.

For the man who has been held up as America’s dad for the past six years on NBC’s “This Is Us,” this is simply controlled chaos. For me, a U.S. Marine veteran of the war in Afghanistan, the entire experience — the early morning car ride, the story you’re reading and how I came to work on his television show — is equal parts surreal and ridiculous.

It is also my own melancholic — and, ultimately, therapeutic — reflection of my war experiences and life afterwards.

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We jump on I-10. Eastbound down the Santa Monica Freeway. Sailing into the busy morning traffic, we bob and weave and rev past fleeting cars and 18-wheeled semi-trucks. A chess game fueled with raw velocity.

I think back to four years ago. I had set up an interview with 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 craft the Vietnam War storyline in season three of the show. The interview was to go over the verisimilitude of the show — the blending of fiction with the memories of a real- life war and its aftermath.

An hour before the call, scrolling through Instagram posts, I found out that a Marine I had served with in Afghanistan had taken his own life nine months earlier. Gunnery Sgt. Vaughn Canlas was an infantryman turned human intelligence collector. He was 39 and had over 16 years of service when he shot himself in the head.

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Once I got on the phone with Fogelman and O’Brien, I broke down. All I remember of the interview is a barrage of apologies from me as I struggled to ask my questions through tears. Fogelman said I was being too hard on myself and that I should stop by if I find myself in California.

Three months later, in January 2019, I’m walking from one sound stage to another, touring the “This Is Us” sets and editing bays. Fogelman asks: Would I be willing to chat with the writers for about 15 minutes? The idea was to help craft a new character: Cassidy Sharp, played by Jennifer Morrison.

Two hours later, I was offered a job.

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The development of Cassidy Sharp in a roomful of strangers was, ultimately, a deep mining of my own internal struggle to understand life after war. Along the way, the show’s writing room turned into my therapy room — which, according to Fogelman, is commonplace.

“That’s our show,” he told me. “I’ve always felt that the show, if you had to pick one thing, was about losing a parent — about grief and about the trauma that comes with that unexpected loss.”

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I identified. I told the writers about the curious Afghan boy I watched step on an improvised explosive device. I told them about my survivor’s guilt. About my depression.

I told them, too, about how Lance Cpl. Charles “Seth” Sharp (who inspired Cassidy’s last name) bled out in front of his friends. About my loss of innocence and purpose and my crumbling marriage. About the time my ex-wife pulled a Beretta 9mm out of my mouth.

Fogelman asked me what I hated about Hollywood depictions of service members and veterans. For me, it was caricatured tropes that painted an individual as either incredibly heroic or incredibly broken. No shades of gray.

That’s not reality. Veterans with post-traumatic stress, I said, still have bills to pay and families to take care of. So we often compartmentalize and pretend we’re OK.

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Even when we’re not.

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On some level, everyone touched by war dies.

Lives are lost. Innocence, too. There is a permanent shattering that occurs upon the topography of the human condition — a before and after. That experience is complex and multilayered, and a genuine depiction of a veteran should include those aspects.

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

I remember being asked if I was excited to see the introduction of Cassidy Sharp during the season four premiere of “This is Us.” I wasn’t. I was terrified. What if people didn’t watch or didn’t care?

The episode paid homage to two of my friends who died in Afghanistan: Sharp and Lance Cpl. Jeremy Lasher. But the scene I remember most is Cassidy in her Marine Corps uniform coming home from war. She exits a cab and is greeted by friends and family. In the background, someone holds a handwritten sign that reads, “Welcome back Sharp.”

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My Sharp didn’t get that. His family didn’t get that experience. But 7.7 million viewers heard his name. Sharp’s dad, Ric, told Stars and Stripes in an interview: “It gave me cold chills. I teared up. I’m tearing up right now.”

“I wanted everyone that I knew to watch it — family, friends, people in the area,” he said. “I was proud and just excited to know that his name is being remembered. I’m a firm believer that when you say their names, they’re not forgotten.”

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I hear the sound of Ventimiglia’s clapping hands as he tries to quiet production assistants and cameramen on Paramount’s soundstage 20.

He’s the director on this episode — number 608, which aired this past week. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles singing “Ooo Baby Baby” reverberates off the walls as the camera captures actors Griffin Dunne and Vanessa Bell Calloway dancing in the background.

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In the foreground, Cassidy Sharp is there, pretending to be OK in front of her son and friend Kevin Pearson (played by Justin Hartley), but suffering in silence over how the war in Afghanistan just ended. Her memories fluctuate between her broken marriage and her broken promises.

In the character’s mind — and in mine — is a replay of last August, when thousands of desperate Afghans spilled out onto the tarmac at Hamid Karzai International Airport, fearful of living under another Taliban regime. The memory of a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport aircraft taking off as several people are crushed under its wheels flashes into my mind’s eye.

I think about how I gripped the door handle in Ventimiglia’s car on the ride over to Paramount. I think about the Afghans and their grips, how they clung to the underside of the plane as it gained altitude, how they fell to their death. My hands grow clammy. The stress tightens my muscles. My breathing grows labored. I cry.

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On the screen, Dunne, who plays Vietnam veteran Nicky Pearson, senses something is off about Cassidy. That is by design. The conversation between myself and “This Is Us” writers Jake Schnesel and Kevin Falls in the months prior to filming focused on the connection between the Vietnam and Afghanistan veterans — and, in particular, the sins they both feel are their burden to carry.

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On some level, I believe, veterans are unreliable narrators in their own war stories. They are always on the inside looking out, and that perspective — while unique and important — can be limited to a narrow field of vision.

And in the absence of any kind of coherent narrative around the wars of either Vietnam or Afghanistan, it’s easy for soldiers to assume responsibility for things that are not their fault — to shrink the war down to their own small, horrific experiences, as Army veteran turned writer Adam Linehan put it.

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It becomes their war — a war of the mind. And in their war, they feel like the bad guys.

So in that storyline, the U.S. didn’t leave Afghans behind; Cassidy did. Jack didn’t bring all his soldiers back alive. Nicky feels unforgivable for accidentally killing an innocent boy in Vietnam. And for me, it is years of playing the what-if game that might have prevented a little boy — a toddler, virtually — from disappearing into a dust cloud of fire and ripped flesh.

After a withdrawal or a surrender or the signing of a peace treaty, the memories of war do not simply get filed away and frozen. They ebb and flow as time passes for those who were there, and for the families impacted when the reverberations of violence rippled outward.

My conclusion from my experience with the “This Is Us” writing process is this: In a storyline about war, and maybe in real life as well, perhaps there’s no better person than a veteran who watched Saigon fall in 1975 to help an Afghanistan veteran navigate the emotional impact of the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

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Maybe fiction can offer the lesson of how wars of the mind should end — with a connection made, with something added and a path forward in sight, rather than just a tale of all that was lost along the way. A sense that even when we’re not OK, we could be.

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

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