Remembering the fallen © Feb. 23, 2007 Norwich University Office of Communications
In December of 2005, Professor Bill Estill read an article that identified Vermont as the state with the highest per capita loss of soldiers from the Iraq war. That was when the idea hit him.
Estill approached students in his television production classes with the idea to make a documentary that would serve as a memorial to those fallen soldiers. The film would celebrate the lives of these Vermonters, through interviews with the friends and family members they left behind.
The project is the latest installment in the Our American Journey series of student—produced historical documentaries. Similar Norwich projects have aired on cable and public television in the past. In 1999, a documentary on Vietnam War veterans won the College Television Award for best documentary. Another project, The Road Back to the Frozen Four recently captured a first-place award in The Society of Professional Journalists' national competition.
“The basis of the film was for them [the families] to tell the story, not us,” said senior producer Amanda Benson. “At the time, I don't think we knew what we were getting into.”
For the next two semesters they crisscrossed the state conducting some seventy-five interviews and compiling nearly fifty hours of video footage. The result is Vermont Fallen, a powerful film that takes viewers into the living rooms and kitchens of families suffering tremendous personal losses, offering a rare glimpse at the depth of their grief. The film's on-campus premier is slated to take place on Feb. 24, when about 150 friends and family members of Vermont’s fallen soldiers will watch the documentary for the first time.
Creating the film proved a challenging and powerful experience for the students on many different levels. Senior producer Cadet Craig McGrath summed up the feelings many experienced while working on the project. “A lot of people at this school either know someone in Iraq, or they could be going there themselves soon. So, it's a very personal thing for us,” he said.
First there were significant logistical challenges to contend with. The military would not give out any contact information, so addresses and phone numbers were difficult to come by. “We started out printing obituaries and any news articles about the soldiers we could find to get information about the families,” McGrath said. From there they tried to reach family members through the soldier’s high school coaches and pastors. When that didn't work, they realized they would have to call the families directly.
“I didn't want to do it,” McGrath recalled. “I didn’t know what to say. Once you did reach them, you got every possible reaction on the phone. Some people hung up and some were thrilled. Some said, ‘I’m glad you're doing this, but I just can’t be a part of it.’”
Benson, whose sister Sarah is a Norwich graduate now serving as an Army helicopter pilot, recalled the first interview done for the film with Marion Gray, stepmother of Sgt. Jamie Gray. As Gray became emotional remembering her son, her feelings had a sudden effect on Benson. “Just sitting across from her,” she said, “I started crying and I didn’t expect that.”
After her experience with the students, Gray reached out to other family members to vouch for the project and the sensitivity of the students involved. Soon after, more people agreed to be interviewed.
“The interviews were primarily done on the weekends, and each interview took most of the day to shoot,” said senior producer, Cadet Steve Robitaille. “We worked pretty much every day, every weekend and most nights. It wasn’t like you could just show up for class and put in three hours or so. That’s how we were able to get this done, because of all the hours we put in collectively.”
“We didn't want to turn this into a politically biased project,” Robitaille said. “We knew that wouldn’t be right for the families, and that’s why they trusted us.”
That trust is evident in the candid interviews that are woven throughout the film. The documentary begins with the family members talking about their departed loved ones’ favorite things. Their remembrances run the gamut from favorite foods and sports teams to career aspirations. Some of the memories are recalled with smiles and laughter, and others are told through a haze of tears.
Estill said one of the most important parts of the project for the families was the interview experience. “It's a cathartic [experience]. Some family members have never spoken these words. It's what they don't want to think of. It's what they're holding back,” he said.
In one segment, Scott Holmes reflects on the relationship he had with his son, Lance Cpl. Jeffery Holmes. “He taught me how to be a dad,” Holmes says. “He gave me meaning.” In another, Angie Walsh describes her feelings on the loss of her son, Sgt. Justin Garvey. “I’m not angry. I'm not bitter. I'm just heartbroken. I’m sad. I miss him.”
In one of the rawest moments in the documentary, Regina Gilbert, mother of Pvt. Kyle Gilbert, shares her grief and frustration. She recalls the intense emotion and frustration she felt as part of a group of family members preparing to meet with the president at Fort Bragg.
“I really wanted to go up to President Bush and smack him across the face,” Gilbert says. “I did meet with the president and I was very nervous about his reaction. But as a mother, I needed for him to see a picture of my son, which I gave him and I told him about Kyle.”
Although Gilbert’s comments are understandably controversial, the students decided to include the segment in the documentary after some debate.
“We left that in because we thought it was very important,” Benson said. “It showed an extreme and that these families were not indifferent,” she explained. “We wouldn't cut it out because it's controversial. We left it in because that's what she was feeling at the time.”
In another interview Sarah Kieslich, sister of Sgt. Jamie Gray, addresses the controversy over US involvement in Iraq. “Whether other people have differences of opinion, it didn't really matter because that was where he felt he needed to be at that time and I'm not going to judge that.”
As more people took notice of the number of Vermont soldiers who died in the war, the stories of their families took on an added poignancy. An Associated Press article on the family members and their response to the project was featured in newspapers throughout the region and across the country. NBC Nightly News aired a segment on the families. U.S. News & World Report and National Public Radio’s Day to Day program also featured the Vermont Fallen project and the families’ stories in their ongoing coverage of the war.
In the course of working on the project, Estill and his students have gotten close to the families. They've experienced some small measure of their pain and learned about the grieving process.
“They [the families] know they can’t get past it,” Estill said. “What they’re finding is that they get through it. They’ve learned from each other a philosophy of how they can get through this and go on with life.”
According to Estill, when the Norwich group started the project four of the fallen families knew each other. Now, Estill said, twenty-eight of the families know each other and regularly gather to celebrate the lives of their loved ones.
“This project joined them together, and now they feel a personal bond that connects them to the University.”
Moreover, Estill, said the project has had a powerful effect on his students. “I think it’s empowered them and made them realize they can make a difference in people's lives,” he said.
“It’s incredible when you realize that these stories are just a small percentage of what the entire nation is going through,“ Benson said. ”I learned that grief doesn't have a definition in a sense, because the process is so different from person to person.”
Reflecting on the experience, Robitaille said, “You feel like you know their sons and husbands, after working on this project so much and seeing their photos and the interviews. Some of them wouldn’t talk to anyone about this. So for me, just knowing we touched their lives was a really good feeling.”
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- Mailing information
- Prof. Bill Estill
c/o Norwich University
158 Harmon Drive
Northfield, Vermont 05663