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When I left the military after three tours in Iraq, I thought my last battle was over. But in August, as the Taliban took over Afghanistan, I went to war again, coordinating with fellow veterans to get Afghans out of their country. Even though I was thousands of miles away from the Kabul airport — in the safety of my own home — I knew I could accomplish more with my phone than I ever could with a weapon in my hand.
I’m a military consultant and writer on CBS’ United States of Al. Over the past month, my two worlds collided in a way I never anticipated. Our show is about the deep friendship between a U.S. Marine (Riley, portrayed by Parker Young) and his Afghan interpreter (Al, played by Adhir Kalyan), who comes to Ohio to live with Riley and his family on a special immigrant visa (SIV). Together, Al and Riley navigate many of the challenges facing vets and refugees: the difficulty of re-entering society after war, the shared trauma of conflict and loss, and the complicated reality for ordinary people living with the consequences of war. We hoped to find humor in the truth that veterans and refugees, no matter their past circumstances, must buy cars, find jobs, organize kids’ birthday parties, and find happiness for themselves and their families.
Two weeks after our show premiered on April 1, the U.S announced its impending withdrawal from Afghanistan. Over the spring and summer, human rights and veteran organizations made increasingly urgent pleas for action to be taken on SIVs, including through a PSA featuring actors from our show.
As we began production on our second season in August, we watched the horrifying takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, giving rise to a humanitarian crisis the speed and scale of which we could not have imagined. Sadly, I’d seen this story before. In 2014, Iraq faced the very real possibility of collapse from ISIS, and interpreters and other Iraqi allies I had served with were on the run for their lives. I worked every option I could to help one man who had saved my life, but our SIVs and refugee programs were too slow. He was left behind and still waits for a visa. The weight of that failure lives with me every day.
So when our Afghan allies faced a similar fate, I knew it was time to act, but this time I was not alone. Everyone on our United States of Al staff, including seven veterans and five Afghans, wanted to help as many people get out as we could. We found ourselves living through our characters’ worst fears. Staff members, who would’ve never met but for our work on the show, came together to get as many people out of Afghanistan as we could. We clustered around screens reviewing maps and searching for breaking news. We called in every favor from every person we knew. We cried tears of relief every time we helped someone make it onto a plane and felt despair whenever a family was turned away at the gate. By connecting with and through each other, we were able to help many Afghans escape the Taliban.
Most people who join the military feel called to public service in some way. This is especially true for many who volunteered after 9/11. When I decided to pursue a career in entertainment, I did so as a continuation of the call to service. I wanted to bring issues faced by those who’ve been to war onto the screen for the many who haven’t. Since 9/11, four times more service members have lost their lives to suicide than to combat. It’s my job, through storytelling, to make the military service members who are still struggling feel less alone.
Narratives have power. They help define who we are as a nation. Being a military consultant and writer on United States of Al hasn’t been just about showing an actor how to wear a uniform or hold a weapon. It’s reminding our writers that our characters represent real people, real stories and the real consequences of war.
Nearly six years ago, I went to a LACMA event honoring Norman Lear. I was running behind, of course traffic was bad, and when I arrived, I saw Mr. Lear making his way up the steps to the auditorium alone. The Hollywood icon and World War II veteran was in his 90s, and it’s a lot of steps. So I asked if I could walk with him. I figured if I arrived with the guest of honor, at least I wouldn’t be late. But as we stopped to take short breaks, I knew that I was having a moment that would change my life. On one of our rest breaks, I said, “I’m a new vet to this business. You did 52 missions over Germany. What do you tell a young creator?”
His advice to me: “Trust your gut because you’ve seen it all.” Then he told me that once, during All in the Family, the network executives threatened to block an episode. And he said, “Fine. I quit.” He went up against the line, and they caved. “If you know it’s right,” he said, “Then stick with it.”
To everyone in the industry who cares about a cause others don’t yet understand, I say the same. We’re living in a time when Americans desperately need help connecting with one another. Politics have the power to divide us, but our stories can unite us, just as they did in the United States of Al writers room.
On our show, we depict an experience lived by many veterans of both Iraq and Afghanistan. Sometimes when faced with bitter and insurmountable problems, you just need to come together, make some tea, and take a seat on the floor across from your neighbor. Start a conversation. And if at first they don’t get what you’re saying, just stick with it.
According to State Department estimates, more than half of all SIV applicants did not get out and now face a terrible fate. Tens of thousands of at-risk Afghan refugees have arrived in the U.S. over the past few weeks and are in dire need of aid and compassion. Now that the last U.S. plane has left Afghanistan, these tragic statistics about our veterans, allies, refugees will recede from the news. But I’ll keep telling their stories. I know it’s right, and I’m sticking with it.
Chase Millsap, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army Special Forces, served three combat tours with the 1st Marine Division in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq and as a U.S. Army Green Beret leading counter-terrorism missions to Southwest Asia. He is currently a consultant and writer on CBS’ United States of Al and the chief content officer at We Are the Mighty, a production company for the military and veterans. For more on how you can learn to help interpreters and SIVs visit NoOneLeft.org and to help the thousands of other refugees around the world go to Rescue.org.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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