MIGHTY MOVIES

'This Is Us' hired a legendary Vietnam veteran to be a military advisor

If you enjoy one of the saddest best shows currently on broadcast television, then you're in for a good cry treat — NBC's This Is Us is exploring the background of one of its central characters, Jack Pearson, a Vietnam veteran. But to tell the story about Jack's enlistment, producers and writers on the show needed the perspective that only an enlisted Vietnam veteran could give them.

They got it from one of the war's most famous veterans.


The show follows the lives of three family members — one adopted — and the history of their mother and father. The family's patriarch, Milo Ventimiglia's Jack, died when the show's three siblings (now in adulthood) were 17 years old. The history of the family's mother and father is shown mainly through flashbacks. This season is exploring Jack's service in Vietnam.

Not only did This Is Us put the actors in the show through a boot camp, they sent camera crews to Ho Chi Minh City — the city, as some Vietnam veterans remember, that used to be called Saigon. Most importantly, they wanted to give Jack and his brother Nicky as realistic a Vietnam experience as possible.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Ventimiglia in NBC's This Is Us. His character is a Vietnam veteran.

(NBC)

Milo Ventimiglia's character, Jack Pearson, deployed to Vietnam in 1971. He enlisted to follow his little brother, Nicky (as played by Michael Angarano), who was drafted into the Army. In reality, Ventimiglia's Jack would have been rejected by a draft board for a heart condition. While the reason for Jack's enlistment is a work of fiction, his experience in Vietnam may not have been.

In order to add to the realism of the show and to Jack's tour of duty, This Is Us producers hired Vietnam veteran and author Tim O'Brien as a consultant. O'Brien, a draftee himself, wrote the seminal Vietnam war story, 1990's The Things They Carried.

Author and Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien

(Photo by Darren Carroll)

O'Brien told Variety he was pleasantly surprised by how well the show portrayed realistic Vietnam War firefights while playing up the dread felt by soldiers who were on jungle patrols in the country.

"You'd think you'd be afraid of dying, but you were afraid of your reputation being sullied, am I brave enough, can I stand up under fire? And the alternative is guys lost it, and you'd almost be insane if you didn't lose it," O'Brien told Variety.

For medics, like Angarano's Nicky Pearson, O'Brien says there was very little protection for them — the best they could hope for was to not get killed while getting all their wounded onto helicopters and out of the fighting.

Tim O'Brien in Vietnam

(Tim O'Brien)

O'Brien's 1990 book is a collection of autobiographical short stories and essays inspired by his service in Vietnam. The author was drafted into the 23rd Infantry Division – the Americal Division – from 1969 to 1970. His unit operated in the area around Mai Lai, where a massacre was perpetrated the year before O'Brien arrived in country. O'Brien describes the lives of Vietnam War medics well.

"There wasn't much you could really do. And watching people die and die on you day after day and lose feet and legs, you could expect how a guy could lose it," the author says.

Jack Pearson in Vietnam, from NBC's 'This Is Us.'

(NBC)

The Things They Carried is routinely listed as one of the top books on Vietnam ever written, is listed as one of the 22 best books of the last 25 years by the New York Times, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. O'Brien himself is the recipient of numerous awards for The Things They Carried and his other works. Most recently, he received the Mark Twain Award in literature. For the show's producers, collaborating with the Vietnam veteran was a rare treat.

"Tim has been a writing hero of mine since college," the shows' creator and executive producer Dan Fogelman told Deadline. "It was incredibly intimidating bringing him into our room to discuss a Vietnam plot line – and it was even more rewarding."