Norwich University students produce documentary film

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(Host) A group of students at Norwich University has spent much of the past year interviewing the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The result is a documentary called “Vermont Fallen.”

As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, the project has affected those who are planning to enter the military in a variety of ways.

(Zind) For nearly 200 years cadets at Norwich University in Northfield have studied the tactics and the history of warfare.

Today, they face the very real prospect of using what they learn in combat.

These students don’t typically dwell on the idea that they could be among the casualties of war – and what that would mean for their families, but a group of cadets has been considering just this possibility.

(McGrath) “This has been a life changing experience, without a doubt.

(Zind) The one-hour documentary that Craig McGrath and his fellow students have produced features scenes from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, interspersed with still photos of the Vermont soldiers who’ve died in those conflicts. There’s no narration: only the voices of the lost soldiers’ families. Regina Gilbert’s son, Kyle, was killed in Iraq.

(Gilbert) “My worst fear is not to be able to remember his voice and his smell, and the way he looks. If I feel like even for a split second I need to see him, I don’t want to forget him in my mind.”

(Zind) The students spent hours interviewing the parents, grandparents, wives and siblings of the fallen Vermont soldiers.

Communications professor Bill Estill says it was a difficult experience for some.

(Estill) “Some students, after two or three trips, asked not to go again. It’s hard to get it off your mind.”

( Sugai) I don’t think there’s one person that has gone on an interview that hasn’t cried.”

(Zind) Cadet Amanda Sugai says witnessing the families’ grief and considering the dangers she may face hasn’t caused her to reassess her decision to join the military.

(Sugai) “I know what to expect when there’s a war going on and I know there are sacrifices people have to make.”

(Zind) Sugai says the documentary has made her realize how her family would react if something happened to her.

Senior Kevin Michel will enter the Army as an officer this year. Michel says listening to the families talk about their lost sons and brothers, he heard the voices of his own parents and siblings.

(Michel) Its like a change in the way you used to see it. If I were to go down over there I know how my family would probably react as well.”

(Zind) Michel says hearing the families in the documentary he realizes he shouldn’t leave his feelings for his family unspoken, because there may not be another chance to express them.

(Holmes) “And when he had been home in April, I said, ‘I have to ask you for your forgiveness.’ He said, ‘Why?’ I said, Because I wasn’t the mother I wanted to be.'”

(Zind) Hearing parents like Patti Holmes talk about her son, Jeffery, who died serving in Iraq – tracing his life from childhood to their last moments together has remained in Cadet Steve Robitaille’s mind.

Robitaille says he’s learned there’s more to a deployment than stowing gear and climbing aboard a plane.

He says when he ships out he’ll do his best to reassure his family, and he’ll try to make certain there aren’t any unresolved issues.

(Robitaille) “I definitely appreciate the time I have with them now and certainly before I go I’m going to express that. But also I going to want to let them know, I don’t want them to have any regrets.”

(Zind) Even if it is a little out of character for a serious young soldier who keeps his emotions in check, Robitaille acknowledges the importance of simply telling his each member of his family that he loves them.

(Robitaille) (laughs) It’s something you want to, but its still tough.”

(Zind) For VPR news, I’m Steve Zind.

(Host) The film “Vermont Fallen” will debut in a special screening for the soldiers families next week.

Public screenings are planned in coming weeks.

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