Fallen soldiers subject of Norwich student documentary

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(Host) Since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, 22 servicemen with ties to Vermont have died overseas.

Those men and their families are much more than names or a newspaper story to a group of Norwich University students.

The students, most of them cadets who’ll deploy when they graduate are making a documentary titled Vermont Fallen.’

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Teacher) “Joe… yes I remember Joe, Good to see you.”

(Keese) Marion Gray acts as if it’s perfectly normal for half a dozen students to march through her door with a truckload of video equipment.

(Gray) “Paul. My goodness, come on in.”

(Keese) She calls her husband Steve, who’s out mowing, while the students set up their gear.

(Steve) “You guys want to set up the camera…”

(Keese) So far the Norwich crew has worked with 18 families of fallen servicemen with ties to Vermont. They first interviewed the Grays last winter, a year and a half after Steve’s son Jamie died in an improvised bomb explosion in Iraq. Today, they’re scanning photos and shooting background footage.

(Gray) “Okay this is the main photo album…”

(Keese) The Grays say they were nervous about being interviewed at first. Now they seem to enjoy being around the courteous young buzz-cut cadets.

The students’ teacher, Bill Estill says some families hesitated because of past experience with the media.

(Estill) “And our approach is definitely only to tell the family’s point of view, we have no agenda.”

(Keese) Jamie’s father, Steve, says it helps that the students understand the military mentality.

(Gray) “And anything that we can do to prolong the memory of not only our son but anybody’s loss in the military is something that shouldn’t be forgotten, because it is a sacrifice….”

(Michel) “That’s what the main purpose of this project is – to let everyone know about these soldiers…let people know about the ones, you know people that actually gave up their lives for them.”

(Keese) Back at the Norwich Video Lab, Cadet Kevin Michel sits before a bank of computer monitors.

(Typing sounds)

(Keese) He scrolls through a 10 minute preview the students prepared for families who gathered recently in Washington DC.

(Grandfather speaks on video) “He was beautiful as a child, and he never changed much. And when I saw him in his Marine uniform when he came home for leave for the first time “

(Keese) The group has sixty hours of footage. They’ll have to whittle it down to an hour-long documentary and perhaps a separate shorter video for each soldier.

Norwich students won a 1998 College Emmy for a similar project about Vermonters who died in Vietnam. But here the memories are more recent and raw.

Sophomore Joe Burley describes the work as heart wrenching. But he says it doesn’t change his hopes for a military career, though it does remind him of the many people that decision can affect.

(Burley) “It kind of makes you look at it and say, if these people can put their lives out for you why can’t you go out there and put your life out for other people,’ you know?….”

(Keese) The students say not all the families agree with the invasion of Iraq. A few are angry.

But they say that many do find comfort in the knowledge that their loved ones died doing something they believed in.

(Women speak on video) “For me, it’s very important for our children to know who their dad was.” … “Everything Jesse was I still feel.”… “Even though Robert and I won’t be here some day, I still want em to say hey, remember Kylie Gilbert, or remember that soldier from Bennington. I don’t want history to forget them.”

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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