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Five years ago this week I went to a hospital, laid down on a table and a doctor stuck two stents into my heart, saving my life. I was 32, the stents the result of a freak heart attack. Is any heart attack not a freak heart attack? I suppose mine was in that my family had no history of heart disease, I had never done cocaine and I didn’t eat pork burgers for breakfast. I kind of wish I had done a lot of cocaine and eaten all those pork burgers, though. The end result would have been the same.
Still, I was alive. That felt pretty good. But thoughts of, “Hey dummy, so that almost happened,” remained. A week after the surgery I saw one of the doctors who performed the initial tests and his jaw dropped. “You’re supposed to be dead,” he said. “You weren’t just at the edge of the cliff — you were way out past the edge!” I said, “Thank you, doctor.” And then I laughed because I thought of Wile E. Coyote running of the edge of a cliff and hanging in midair. And then I spent the next five years obsessed with dying. I had cozied up to death, and death is kind of a dick.
The specter of what could have happened is something I deal with on a daily basis. Near every morning, death pops into my head. Brush teeth, feed cat, pancakes, death, change diaper, do a stupid dance to convince my daughter to get dressed, this is a nice moment, shit why am I thinking about death again, is today the day I die? Shit. My fear of death hasn’t gone away — it has amplified with age, worked its way into my concerns and loves and hopes, colored how I see my friends, my family, my wife, my children … it has made me stronger, smarter and kinder and, on more than one occasion, reduced me to a broken, crying, hopeless mess. At times, I feel I am a slave to memories and fictions.
Which is a very long way of saying watch an all-new Enlisted this Friday at 9 p.m. on Fox!
There’s a segue here, I promise. See, that experience, those feelings, are part of me now. If I’ve learned anything from my heroes, John Steinbeck to Judd Apatow alike, it’s that if you’re going to be any good you should probably get to writing about what’s real and honest to you; your fears and worries, the stuff you’re embarrassed about and the stuff you’re hopeful for. Pun fully intended, what’s closest to your heart.
While writing the pilot for Enlisted, trying to figure out why it was honest to me was tricky. I have a lot of military among my family and friends, so that part felt OK. And it’s about brothers — very much my relationship with my two younger brothers Ryan and Robbie — and that felt right, too. But “right” wasn’t hitting that “I need to do this” switch in my brain. What made it really click was the moment I realized that Sgt. Pete Hill (Geoff Stults) could be traumatized by his deployment. He is carrying something with him, and that experience has changed him — he’s still very much in the process of figuring out how — and his brothers who love him don’t really know this “new” him and he isn’t even fully comfortable with it.
Sgt. Pete Hill is a soldier. I am a writer. I would never equate my experiences to anything a man or woman serving our country goes through. All I can do as a writer is try to write and deal with my experiences, and I was going through something difficult that didn’t end because I stopped talking about it. In fact, the more I didn’t talk about it the more it festered and got worse and ate at me and twisted the living out of the day.
This idea in mind, I talked to my friends who were or had been soldiers. Most of them said they were OK, that things were fine, that what they did was a job — full of the joys and frustrations of any job — and some missed it, and some didn’t. But c’mon, they were doing fine. Fine.
And then after time, at the edges, over beers, over late-night emails, when it was little easier to open up and admit things, some of them told me they weren’t doing so great.
Some missed friends, some saw things they can’t speak of … some don’t know what it was they went through, they just want the memories of it to stop.
I guess I’m used to being a writer, and wearing my scars like they’re experience points. Look at this crazy experience I had: I get to write about it! It’s not the same for some of my friends who served — you bury these memories, literally and figuratively. I got the distinct feeling from some that you don’t admit this stuff, that it’s hard; that some things, you just learn to live with.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Say it together, P-T-S-D! PTS, as the Pentagon wants to shorten it. PTS — it’s not a bad word! And in most cases, it does not present itself like the streotypical depiction you see in pop culture. In reality it’s not the stereotypical depiction you see in pop culture. Guy in the front yard with a gun, yelling at the world. That exists, but so do countless men and women wrestling with the demons of memory, uncomfortable, feeling they can’t shake it. Human beings responding to extreme circumstance. PTS does not make someone a ticking time bomb; it is a body dealing with a trauma — it is not a reason to deny someone a job, you specific asshole in Florida, dammit, you know who you are. PTS PTSD PTS. Stop being scared, dammit! It’s not a bad word it’s something that people we know and love are dealing with and living with and stop treating them like lepers right damn now. Right damn now.
My experiences opened me to learning about people I love and PTS, and that has influenced Enlisted to the core. We’re doing a big comedy show and smack dab at the heart of it is a main character who is dealing with seeing people he loved die — Sgt. Pete Hill is a man who doesn’t feel comfortable all the time being alive. And that’s maybe dicey and tricky in a comedy but screw it, it sure as hell feels honest to me and to the writers who said, “OK, let’s do this,” and the actors — especially the amazing Stults, who has a friend of his own who is dealing with PTS. He wanted to honor them by this. I believe he has.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the suicide rate among Veterans is 22 a day. Twenty-two each day. And that’s a conservative estimate. To our great sadness, we often don’t know why men and women make that awful, impossible choice. They witness literally the worst possible things human beings can do to each other. How can we not expect those experiences to have lasting, harrowing effects? Combat stresses, sexual assault, not to mention well over half of veterans’ suicides are from men and women over the age of 50. There is no one answer, but the closest I think we can get is making the idea of talking, getting help and opening up something seen as noble and right. Nearly one in five suicides nationally is a veteran, even though veterans make up about 10 percent of the U.S. population. This is an epidemic.
Friday’s Enlisted episode is goofy, funny, heartfelt, solemn at certain moments and heavy. It’s from the heart. It’s written by Kate Purdy, one of the best people I’ve ever met. Amid all the fun guest star-ness of Barry Bostwick (a national treasure), Dean Stockwell (yelled at me a lot until I bought him beer), and Stacey Keach (a dream, kind and made 200 people tear up with one line), my sincere hope is that a few — hell, ONE — man or servicewomen out there sees the show, sees the decision Sgt. Pete Hill makes at the end of the episode, and it influences them to do the same.
Sgt. Pete Hill doesn’t remain a slave to his memories; he’s working to get to a place where hope is an acceptable thing. Where it’s OK to unburden himself of pains he feels, of memories which he thinks he can never let go. I don’t think he — or anyone else — should let those memories go. Nor should calluses build around them and make them hard to access. These things happened. These things are part of who is. He is alive, and it’s OK to find joy and hope in that mere fact — because what could have happened didn’t happen. He did not die. He is alive.
Hope is not passive. It doesn’t emerge from the ether, fully formed. There is power in hope because you have to work for it, and there is joy in opening up and confronting your fears.
If Friday’s Enlisted episode can lead even one man or woman to open up, to realize that things can be OK, to allow the light in, to realize that you don’t just have to live with it? Then piss off death. The heart attack was worth it.
Enlisted airs Fridays at 9 p.m. on Fox. Kevin Biegel created the series and executive produces alongside Mike Royce.
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