Thursday, May 10, 2007

Season-finale Roundup: Things We Learned from The Unit

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

by Robert Edelstein

Few television shows pack the same live-grenade tension as an hour of The Unit (which presents its season finale tonight at 9 pm/ET). On the CBS series, Dennis Haysbert leads a small group of elite military personnel through deadly missions in hot spots around the world, while at home, Unit wives grapple with long separations, their husbands' low pay and some potentially explosive secrets. The show is based on the book Inside Delta Force, which covers author Eric Haney's own career in the army's special-forces unit from 1978 to '85. And though both Haney and fellow series producer Shawn Ryan maintain that the show is fiction, it turns out The Unit is much more bull's-eye than bull. Here's a look at what's pure story and what's true grit.

A man really can survive being snatched off the ground by a passing plane. "It's called the Fulton Extraction," Haysbert says of the real-life technique his character Jonas used to escape a hot zone in the second-season premiere. While part of the stunt was blue-screened, a crane yanked Haysbert 75 feet into the air to get the right effect. "Now I know what flying superheroes feel like," he says.

Waziristan actually exists. The Unit battled local militia in this very real, albeit very fake-sounding, region of northwestern Pakistan.

Special-forces wives have it bad. Keeping national secrets, maintaining a brave face and dealing with bureaucracy: that's just another day in the life of a Unit wife. When one of the wives got a threatening note from base officials because, of all things, her lawn wasn't edged properly, real-life Air Force wife Lori Twichell cringed. "I've had that happen to me!" she says about a notice to evict a family from base housing unless their turf passed inspection.

It takes a team to make one sniper shot. In one episode, Unit members had to shut down three enemy machine-gunners from nearly 1.5 miles away. While one calculated distance and a second judged wind speed, two others hit the bull's-eye — just like in real life. "Wind, temperature, elevation, distance, humidity — all are big influences on the bullet," says a military shooter stationed in Iraq.

War games are real. Apparently, special forces from other countries do compete in counterterror Olympics like in the "Games of Chance" episode. "It's mostly Western European and English-speaking nations," says Ryan. Does Haney confirm? "No comment," he says.

Army pay stinks. Young soldiers bring home about $20,000 per year. No wonder Jonas' wife, Molly (Regina Taylor), took a controversial job as a private-security-company recruiter.

Elite forces speak in tongues. Can you say "polyglot" in Urdu and Spanish? To survive in a covert unit — on TV or off — you'll need to. "You have to cover a wide area linguistically," says Haney, who has a passing knowledge of seven languages. "That's a requirement."

If you're a military kid, both your parents can be deployed at the same time. Such was the case in "Change of Station." "It happens, and it's a travesty," Haney says. "I don't want to use our show to point this out, but hopefully it gets people to think."

Unit members are not above the law. The secret Unit emergency stash that's funded, in part, by stolen diamonds? It's "dramatic license," Haney says. Contrary to what many of the show's antics would have you believe, the Delta Force does not have carte blanche to stray outside the law. The show's fiction will mirror that fact in this week's season finale when the guys return from a mission to find that they're under investigation.

Uncle Sam doesn't LoJack soldiers. In "Extreme Rendition," Army docs implanted a sensor inside Bob (Scott Foley) to track him during a mission. "Does that exist? Yeah," Haney says. But "the military does not do that." Yet.

But elite forces do play chicken. In "The Kill Zone," junior snipers pick off brightly colored fowl as a training exercise. "A chicken's body moves in the way a person's head moves," Haney says, defending the practice. "I've done that, and all the chicken lovers of the world can write me about it."

Unit members don't mind a little illegal whiskey — though the stuff could kill ya. Bob was "initiated" into the Unit with a drink of moonshine from a hidden still earlier this season. In the real Delta Force, says Haney, getting to that ‘shine takes some know-how, not to mention courage. "Tradition holds that the guys back in the 1950s built a still down in one of the [firing] ranges because they knew nobody would go there. [They built it] like the path through a minefield, so only the cognoscenti knew how to get to the still and run off with a batch of whiskey. Of course, not everybody can get down there. It's in a place where, if you took a misstep, you'd blow up." You've gotta be really thirsty.

A soldier's life is worth $100,000. After a soldier died in "The Kill Zone," there was talk of his family getting a $6,000 "death gratuity," among other funds. According to Pentagon releases, that figure may have been accurate four years ago, but it was raised to $12,000 in 2003, and then in January 2006 to $100,000 for all active-duty soldiers.

Sometimes it takes five guys to protect one VIP. There are times the entire unit will be dispatched to rescue or secure one individual. "It all depends on the threat, the location and where the person might be traveling," says Ryan. Of course, not everybody gets such five-star treatment. Jokes Ryan, "Yeah — it is a status symbol."

It's easier to get into Harvard than the Unit. The dropout rate of those applying for the few Delta Force positions is, Haney says, 94 percent. So while the training Bob endured to make the cut in "Natural Selection" was brutal, the real thing is "much harder."

Elite soldiers always fire twice. Haney calls the pop-pop shooting technique a "double tap." Pray you never need to know why.

If you ever find a paratrooper cap, check behind the patch. In a recent episode, Tiffy (Abby Brammell) bought a WWII paratrooper cap and found a rare coin sewn behind it. Doing so was SOP in the old days, though the coin was chiefly for recreational or protective purposes. Says Haney, "The whole idea was if you were downtown on pass, at least you had a dollar for a beer, or if you were drunk, you could take the bus back. Or if there's a fight, you could whip the hat and break a cheekbone with it."

"We do negotiate with terrorists." Col. Tom Ryan (Robert Patrick) declares as much in "Bait" — but only if the stakes are worth the risk. Haney concurs. In his Delta days, he was often asked to help speed along diplomacy. Nowadays, it happens "only if the price is high enough," he says. "If you're a senator's daughter, that's one thing. If you're a TV Guide writer, you're on your own."

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