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Norman Lear, Kirby Dick, ‘SEAL Team’ Actors Talk Tackling the Military on TV

A decade ago, director Kirby Dick heard a story about sexual assault in the military that he almost didn’t believe because he found it “so shocking…that the US military was not protecting their service men and women.” But he began researching and found out just how much was being covered up. It led him to create the 2012 documentary “Invisible War,” but it also led, he believes, to the bigger cultural #MeToo movement being experienced today.

“A lot of changes in society start in the military, and I think in some ways the #MeToo movement, which has blossomed, owes a debt to survivors of military sexual assault,” Dick said at the Television Academy’s Television and the Military Experience panel in Los Angeles, Calif. on Tuesday.

When he made the film, there were not many people speaking out against sexual assault at all, let alone in the military, he pointed out. But after the film, “college students started speaking out and we pivoted and made another film…about sexual assault [on] college campuses,” he said. Putting such stories out through the media put them “in front of the public in a broader way,” he added, which leads to more open discussion and change.

“These issues follow people when they leave the service,” said Elizabeth Kristen, founder of Legal Aid at Work’s Veterans and Military Families Project. “Sometimes people are discharged and they don’t get an honorable discharge because of something that happened to them.”

She noted that sexual assault survivors often get “administrative discharges” over “honorable discharges,” which doesn’t allow them to collect full benefits. Others were often labeled with “personality disorders,” which had negative consequences later in life during divorce proceedings, custody battles and job searches.

Paula Coughlin, a former Navy lieutenant who was assaulted while in active duty and is now a board member and spokesperson for Protect Our Defenders, said that the year she reported her assault there were almost 100 others listed in the same report but she was the only one who came forward by name.

“When I brought my complaint forward, the very next morning I told [the admiral I worked for] what happened to me and he said, ‘Well that’s what you get when you go down a hall full of drunk aviators,'” she said. “There’s this level of morality and conduct that I couldn’t fathom why he would say anything but, ‘Tell me more and let’s take care of it.’ And it was absolutely a snapshot of the culture in the military.”

Although Coughlin said she “hung in there more than most,” it really took “the media getting ahold of” her story for anything to be done — and even then, she was discharged without her benefits and hearing “you must have the wrong guy” from those who knew her attacker and considered him a “good Christian.”

Sexual assault in the military was only one important topic discussed at the event, which was held in honor of Veterans’ Day, which this year also happened to fall on the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Veterans’ rights, including healthcare, and hiring them in second careers beyond the military were also hot topics of the evening.

Norman Lear, whose first career was in the Air Force before he was producing television, acknowledged that there is a “vast difference between the way we felt about our country in World War II and the way we think or feel or both about our country today.” He chalked this up to the fact that civics is no longer commonly taught in schools, which led those who studied the subject to better understand the “gift” of freedom they had.

“The war started, it seemed impossible for us to be…the winners that we really became,” Lear said of World War II, which he helped fight between 1942 and 1945. “We had real reason to be proud. But then I think the way America sells itself took hold and over the years we became God’s chosen — and we’re not. … I think we began to believe the bulls— and lack appreciation.”

Lear also noted that he doesn’t think “the veteran gets the care the veteran earns” today.

In rebooting Lear’s 1970s and 1980s sitcom “One Day at a Time” for Netflix in 2017, Mike Royce says Lear really wanted to “take down” the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) because he had been researching what obstacles were facing various members of the military today. “It’s always insane to go into war they’ll pay whatever but the cost of what happens when the people come home is always where they want to scrimp and save,” Royce said.

The show has brought veterans into the writers’ room to speak about their experiences, and one specific story inspired the first season’s “Hold, Please” episode in which Penelope (Justina Machado) spends the entire 30 minutes trying to get someone from the VA to take her call to set up a doctor’s appointment. The real-life vet was trying to set up a chiropractor appointment and was told he had to speak with someone specific. He spent a month trying to get ahold of her before being told to call at a specific time and on a specific day to reach her. “He had to take a day off from work [to do so],” Royce shared. And when he finally got her on the phone, she said “Yes, I can help you, but I can’t do it today.”

“I think we made the VA look better!” Royce said.

“The Long Road Home” showrunner Mikko Alanne said that since the VA is so overwhelmed with the sheer volume of cases, not to mention the cost, the price of resources “should be factored into every military budget.” And, he stressed, the resources can’t just me to “medicate and hope they’re OK.”

When he was spending time with veterans and their families while researching and producing his 2017 National Geographic limited series, he met many who knew veterans who had taken their own lives. The overwhelming consensus from the survivors was, “I wish someone would have listened. I wish they would have been seen as a person and not a number,” he shared.

A major part of Kevin McKidd’s character work on “Grey’s Anatomy” has been fleshing out the role of former military doctor Owen Hunt and putting a human story on the clinical PTSD diagnosis. Early on, he said he relied on a lot of medical books and the “Baghdad ER” documentary to inform Owen’s nightmares and sleepwalking and the dark place he was in.

“He started the show in a very challenged way, and I just feel proud that he’s managed to become chief of this hospital and be really productive in his time after [war],” McKidd said. “You feel the responsibility.”

The production team behind CBS drama “SEAL Team” is doing their part to not only see veterans as people but hire them — and not just as technical advisors.

“We consider them producers from the ground up,” said star and producer David Boreanaz. “There’s a concept of understanding, of having more skin in the game than, ‘Oh you’re holding the gun wrong.’ … There’s a feel to it, and I think what’s really unique and special about it…is we want people to feel it. The impact that they have is you feel the show.”

“SEAL Team” actor and producer Tyler Grey acknowledged that hiring veterans often first takes opportunity — an open door from someone already within the industry. But even more importantly, he noted that “your veteran status, that is not a skill.” Trying to get into the business simply by saying one is a veteran means putting a limitation on the kinds of jobs one can do — usually relegated to technical advisor on very specific military programs, of which there are not that many. Instead, he said it is imperative to develop a skill set that could fall into one of the other 100 or so jobs on a set.

“That’s my background, that’s my history as a veteran, but now I can do this — that plugs into the Hollywood system,” he said. “Sell yourself on that skill with a background as a veteran and not vice versa.”

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