As he grew up on Fox Island, Jared McGilliard never thought about being a filmmaker. He never thought he’d be awakened by rocket attacks on his building in the middle of a war zone one day.
“That’s the great thing about this job,” said McGilliard, who served as the series’ producer, or showrunner, for “Inside Combat Rescue,” a six-part program that premiered Monday on the National Geographic Channel. “I find myself in environments that I have no right to be in.”
McGilliard’s parents, Carol and John, and twin sister Marisa still live in Gig Harbor, and he’s back in the Northwest for a few days of relaxation after a year of production and promotion for the series.
“Never in my life did I think I could say, ‘In a month, I could be dropped into the middle of the Arctic or South America or the Himalayas,’ ” he said. “And yet I find myself in these places out of total randomness, and I love that my life is that unpredictable. It fit right in with the plan.”
While McGilliard was attending Gig Harbor High School, his plan was to see the world. He graduated in 1998, and he said his main focus was not college but on traveling and meeting new people.
He bounced from school to school before he settled at Emerson College in Boston, mostly out of a desire to see the East Coast. He hadn’t considered studying film until he asked an adviser about the quickest way to graduate, and she suggested Emerson’s renowned visual and media arts program.
“I started to really enjoy it and had a bit of a knack for it,” McGilliard said.
He headed to move back to the West Coast after he graduated to see if he could make it in the industry.
“I moved to (Los Angeles) with the hope that I could make a living by traveling and telling stories that were important or fun or interesting,” he said.
McGilliard has worked as a producer on television programs for the past several years, including “Ice Road Truckers” and “American Loggers.” He was the series producer for “Knights of Mayhem,” a modern-day jousting show that aired on National Geographic last year, and he formed a friendship with the network’s president, Maryanne Culpepper.
Culpepper’s son serves as an Air Force pararescueman, or PJ, in Afghanistan, and McGilliard said the connection helped lead to unprecedented access for the network to document the work of the 38th Rescue Squadron.
Culpepper asked McGilliard to lead the production.
“I had done a bunch of shows in some dangerous environments, but never anything like this,” he said. “I was jumping in as green as could be.”
McGillard’s crew was embedded with an elite unit of combat medics, trained in combat almost to the level of special operations forces or Navy SEALS, but McGilliard said they also are experienced medical professionals. They are tasked with the rescue and aid of fellow troops, civilians, allied forces and, sometimes, Taliban fighters.
“Their main job is to rescue anyone, anywhere, any time, and get them home so they can see their families again,” McGilliard said.
He oversaw preproduction last year, planning for how the crew would organize and tell the stories they found on the ground, and they met with many of the unit’s members at their bases in the United States before they shipped out.
The production team left for Afghanistan on the squadron’s plane, and they were with the unit from their first day in the country in May. McGilliard and his crew left Afghanistan last July, and he has been guiding the series’ editing process since.
Living and working in Afghanistan was a startling experience, McGilliard said. His crew followed the 38th on missions and in day-to-day operations, and McGilliard often operated the camera himself.
“It truly is a war zone,” he said.
McGilliard followed minesweepers in the field and felt rocket blasts that shook he and his crew members from their sleep.
“When you wake up to a whole building shaking – I’ve never felt anything like that,” he said.
He wasn’t sure what to expect before he shipped out, because he hasn’t seen a lot of coverage in the media about the realities of America’s longest war since Vietnam. That’s what he hopes his series can start to change.
“I was really surprised by how violent this war was,” McGilliard said of his immediate impression.
When he arrived in Afghanistan, he visited a hospital that admits 20 to 25 new wounded Americans every day.
“That was an extremely motivating moment for me,” he said. “The stories that we tell, just by the nature of what these guys’ jobs are, take the viewer straight to the consequences (of the war). And it’s not a consequence that we make a decision to shoot – we don’t say, film this one but not this one.”
The amount of material captured by the “Inside Combat Rescue” team means the series has moments that are funny, sad, sweet and often harrowing. McGilliard said he wanted his series to bring those moments to a wider audience, to help viewers connect with PJs and other soldiers who deal with the environment in Afghanistan every day.
“I hope this starts to get people upset,” he said. “If you’re comfortable watching this film from beginning to end, then we have not done our job correctly. I hope people truly feel the impact of this war and start talking about it a little more.”
On the Air
“Inside Combat Rescue” airs on the National Geographic Channel at 10 p.m. Mondays.
Reporter Will Livesley-O’Neill can be reached at 253-358-4152 or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @gateway_will.