Brett Aycock doesn't mind waiting. As a military technical consultant and an actor with a small role on ABC's Austin-filmed drama "My Generation," the Austinite does a lot of it. He waits for cameras to be set. He waits for shots to be lighted. He waits for props to be set.
The former Army sniper is used to downtime. He's experienced plenty of it since a hand grenade, tossed onto a rooftop in Iraq's Anbar province, where he was providing support to Iraqi commandos, exploded just three feet from him.
Aycock spent months going through a baker's dozen surgical procedures to repair nerve damage, remove shards of metal that pierced and coated his bones (his license plate reads "SHRPNL") and treat lacerations from his face to his feet; he waited years for the Army to change his designation from "honorably discharged" to "retired" so that he could receive decent medical benefits; and he waited for the day he could stop taking the medications that eased his physical pain (it will dog him for the rest of his life) but clouded his mind.
The waiting Aycock does on the "My Generation" set is much more to his liking, comfortingly reminiscent of the downtime between missions in Iraq, when he and his buddies would watch DVDs and play cards — lots of cards — and execute simple, stress-relieving practical jokes, such as zip-tying one another's boots to their bedposts.
"This show's really been a godsend," Aycock admits. "I was kind of in a bad place, and then the pilot came along and picked me up."
Aycock was enlisted for "My Generation," which will debut at 7 p.m. Sept. 23, by Mehcad Brooks, who stars in the ensemble. (Brooks is the son of American-Statesman editorial writer Alberta Phillips.)
"Mehcad and I grew up together," Aycock says. "We actually first met when we were in junior high. He was playing basketball at Kealing, and I was playing basketball at Murchison."
As teammates at Anderson High, the pair became fast friends. After graduation, Brooks left for the University of Southern California, while Aycock remained in Austin to study criminal justice at the University of Texas. He remembers working so much to pay for school that he often missed classes. (It was, he says, "a little counterproductive.")
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Aycock's plans took a turn.
"This was our generation's big conflict, and I wanted to be a part of that and also do something that I could look back on and be proud of," he says. "And once I got in, I really loved it. It was very rewarding."
Aycock joined the infantry. "If I was going to do it, I wanted to go all out," he says.
"All out" included sniper training as well as emergency medical technician, airborne and air assault schools. He jumped out of massive C-130 aircraft ("It was a lot of fun, exhilarating"), and he was scheduled to enter the Special Forces program.
Stationed in Korea for a year, Aycock was supposed to return to the United States.
"That changed," he says. He was deployed to Iraq in August 2004 and remained there until he was injured the next January.
Sitting in his North Austin home office, its walls decorated with military photos, diplomas and a Purple Heart, Aycock recounts the moments that ended his military career: how, as he was ending his shift, the weapon, tossed from an alley, landed in his lap; how he instantly assessed its "kill radius" (nine to 15 feet) and the fact that grenades explode "up and out," so you don't want them airborne; that the fuse allows 3 to 5 seconds before detonation, and you're never sure how long it's been activated; and how he decided that the only thing he could do without possibly injuring others was to "bat it" a few feet away and dive for the ground.
"Then I just kind of waited," he remembers. "It felt like it took awhile — and then the blast hit. It was excruciating, like being hit by a freight train. I knew I was OK because I was still conscious, but I didn't even want to look back. I was like, 'My legs are gone. I just want to get off this roof, and I don't want them to throw another one and not get as lucky as I just did.' "
"There's no way I should have gotten off that roof with my legs or my life," Aycock says. "I know a lot of guys who had a lot less happen, and they are a lot worse off. So I am extremely lucky, and you'll never hear me complain about it."
Within a few weeks, he was back in the U.S., and it wasn't long before he realized that his planned military career was over.
Then Brooks, filming the "My Generation" pilot in Austin last March, met Aycock for lunch and to catch up.
The actor wanted to discuss his character, a high school jock turned soldier in Afghanistan. Brooks quizzed his friend about lingo, demeanor and military specifics.
"It's a completely different culture," Aycock explains. "I mean, we walk a certain way, we hold our hands a certain way. We don't carry things in our right hand in case we happen to walk by an officer and have to salute. Things like that still carry on whether you're in uniform or not because it's so ingrained in your psyche."
Aycock looked over the military portions of the "My Generation" script. He pointed out inaccuracies and outdated notions. He edited and made notes.
Brooks took the information to executive producer Noah Hawley, who instructed him to use Aycock's input and asked the veteran to act as an authenticity monitor during the shooting of Brooks' Afghanistan scenes. Aycock ended up choreographing an entire action sequence.
When ABC placed the show on its fall schedule, Aycock was drafted as military technical adviser staging action scenes, showing stuntmen how to hold and fire weapons and consulting on set decoration, props and wardrobe.
"To maintain the accuracy I require, Brett reads scripts and advises me on the reality of our story lines," Hawley says.
Aycock also landed the role of Staff Sgt. Waterhouse, second in command to Brooks' character, Rolly.
"All of the men who play soldiers on the show are actual veterans — some, like Brett, with no acting experience at all," Hawley says.
Brooks says it's "a blessing" to have Aycock on set. "It's incredible to be going through a lot of these difficult circumstances — being mortared and having grenades thrown at you, being shot at — and looking over and seeing the familiar face of someone that you truly care about. It really makes it real for me."
Aycock recalls that he wasn't sure how he would react to those fictional but realistic firefights, staged in a North Austin quarry.
"But it was just like riding a bike again," he says. "I love doing that stuff, so it was just second nature. I might be an adrenaline junkie, but it's a lot of fun. And it's even more fun because you know no one's getting hurt. You know it's all fake, and everybody's going to get to go home afterwards. "
If working with Aycock has given Hawley and Brooks insight into the military mindset, it has also heightened their respect for those who have served their country in uniform.
"Working with Brett and the other veterans, I am constantly reminded of the huge gulf of opportunity that exists today for veterans versus what existed back in the 'good old days,' where service in the armed forces was just as much a path to a professional career as college," Hawley says. "I think Brett is more skilled, disciplined, responsible and reliable at 28 than most of us are at 40."
Aycock, who works part time editing and formatting publications for Landes Bioscience , hopes to spin a career out of this gig. He has been approached about providing military technical advice for independent films and video games.
And he credits Brooks for getting the ball rolling.
"We basically consider ourselves family; we consider ourselves brothers," he says. "We've known each other for a long time and played on a team together ... and now we're on a team together again, so it's kind of come full circle."