Soldiers playing soldiers (or advising): Unbroken lives

There's a flood of soldier stories coming to TV this fall. Before they arrive, however, "Night Shift" has been doing well in the Nielsen ratings and has a special episode Thursday (Aug. 10). Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

TV sets and movie screens are filling up with soldiers now.

Along the way,
stereotypes persist. Just ask some of the former soldiers involved in
a “Night Shift” episode Thursday. Often, they say, shows depict
the extremes:

-- The unflinching
rock. “Some (shows) have a list that says, 'Remember, soldiers
don't get nervous; soldiers don't fidget; soldiers don't' – and I'm
like, 'Well, I do,'” said Josh Kelley, once a Ranger sergeant in
Afghanistan and now a busy actor.

-- Or the opposite.
“They always show the former soldier as (emotionally) broken,”
said Toby Montoya, who was in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Some are, but
most aren't. I'm not.”

He would have every
reason to break down. Eight years ago, he said, a 490-pound explosive
device hit his vehicle in Afghanistan; he's had 22 surgeries and
remains in a wheelchair.

Still, he's a
vibrant force as “Night Shift” military advisor, supervising
“anything that we do that involves (military),” producer Gabe
Sachs said. “He arranges flashbacks; a lot of the sequences are
designed by Toby.”

The show is set at a
San Antonio hospital, surrounded by military bases. Some of the
doctors and patients are active-duty military; others are veterans.

On Thursday, that
peaks when there are injuries during a military funeral. Victims fill
the emergency room, with all of the guest roles going to actors who
are ex-soldiers.

That includes Dan
Lauria, who was a Marine officer in Vietnam, long before being the
“Wonder Years” dad. And it includes Kelly, 35, who enlisted as a
teen-ager in 2000. “I wanted to be the best, so I joined the Ranger
battalion,” he said. That unit – with Brian Anthony, now a “Night
Shift” writer, as executive officer – was in the first wave to

Now Kelly is an
actor, best-known for “UnReal,” where he plays the director of
photography and the ex-lover of the show's main character, Rachel.

“A lot of soldiers
are very artsy .... They want to express themselves in dofferent
ways,” Kelly said, pointing to Montoya as a prime example. “I'm
sure this has really expanded (his) situation.”

Montoya was in the
Army from 1992-95, then re-enlisted after the Sept. 11 attack,
fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. As doctors and medics saved him, he
said, “one of the very few things I do remember is somebody holding
my hand, saying, 'Not on my shift. I'm not going to let you die.'”

He got “amazing”
care in military hospitals, he said, lesser care from the Veterans
Administration. Growing bored during recovery, he tried “Night
Shift,” which films in his home town of Albuquerque.

“He started as an
extra,” said producer Jeff Judah. “Gabe was talking to him and we
realized ... he had so much military knowledge.”

Now he has a key
part of a show that has abundant military moments – especially this

-- “The Night
Shift,” 10 p.m. Thursdays, NBC

-- The Aug. 10
episode has military veterans as the writers, the director (Tim
Busfield) and the guest stars (including Dan Lauria and Josh Kelly).