Student filmmakers give voice
to veterans’ war experience © Feb. 13, 2009, Norwich University Office of Communications

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video courtesy of the NU communications programCommunications students intend to interview more than 30 veterans for the documentary, The War at Home. They try to complete a film each year.

Army 2nd Lt. Gene Enriquez, wearing jeans and a sweater, relaxed in a chair in the familiar surroundings of the Sullivan Museum on Norwich University’s Northfield, Vt., campus.

His backdrop was William H. Earle’s Gettysburg mural and glassed displays of historic weapons and uniforms. Lights were trained on his face. A high-definition video camera was about to roll, but first Enriquez had a question: “How serious do I have to be?”

“Just be yourself,” said communications Professor William Estill, adjusting the camera for the best angle. Enriquez, 29, who served in Iraq in 2006, was reminded not to look directly into the camera and told that if he had any misgivings about the filming it could be halted and his words deleted.

We will be leading people just like many of [the interview subjects], and we need to know where they are
coming from.

~ Brad Panasiti,
Norwich senior

Such assurances were meant to put Enriquez—and other veterans before him—at ease, so he could more freely tell his story about military service and the experience of transitioning back to life at home.

The film, Our American Journey: The War at Home, will be a sequel to the University’s acclaimed 2007 documentary, Our American Journey: Vermont Fallen, which was produced under Estill’s guidance by many of the same communications students interviewing Enriquez. In Vermont Fallen, families and friends of 29 Vermonters who died in Iraq or Afghanistan described their anguish and efforts to get on with life. The documentary received national recognition, including coverage on the CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News and The Today Show.

Enriquez, a Vermont Army National Guardsman who lives in Burlington, Vt., and 2007 graduate of Norwich, the nation’s oldest military college, took his cues from student interviewers, eight of whom crowded behind the camera. He talked of his service in Al-Anbar Province as gunner, driver and soldier prepared for dismounting from a Humvee. He came under small-arms fire several times, Enriquez said. “The first experience with the enemy is always memorable. We were trained to react, and we did.”

In a conversational interview, Enriquez said he found “the enemy ever-changing”; mentioned that he worked to learn the Iraqi Arabic language; said “in some places kids asked for candy, and in others they threw rocks,” and expressed a conviction that “we did good things over there.”

Asked about his thoughts on death while in Iraq, he said, “You don’t even think about that much. ... You try to do the best you can at maintaining 100 percent awareness.”

Enriquez also commented on relationships forged by soldiers who spend days together in a military vehicle. “They can be like marriages in which you can argue over little things, like a [husband] and wife.”

To date, nearly a dozen veterans—30 is the goal—have been interviewed. Some, like Enriquez, are composed. Others are more emotional, expressing grief over deaths or wounds sustained by friends. Some focused on the difficulty of readjusting to life back home, which Estill says is the film’s main theme.

Virginia Wong, 23, of Kapolei, Hawaii, can relate. “Over there, you get used to a way of life; a set schedule. You get so used to that mindset that when you come back, you are at a [loss] because there are so many options.”

Wong has been both interviewer and interviewee. After spending 2004 in Iraq as an Army specialist, driving a truck carrying helicopter fuel, she enrolled in Norwich and wound up in Estill’s class working on the documentary. Students at Norwich choose a military or traditional student lifestyle.

Being interviewed, Wong said, can be cathartic. Veterans open up on confusing and contradictory issues. In the film, they discuss feelings about patriotism, fear, courage, remorse, duty and friendship. They mention long periods of exhaustion and boredom, sometimes followed by tremendous adrenaline rushes. “Just being able to talk about this [helps some veterans] get a weight off their shoulders,” she said.

Wong and other students believe The War at Home will help families understand what their loved ones experienced. It may also find a function in ROTC or sociology classrooms, and provide caregivers at veterans’ hospitals with new insight.

Estill’s students hope to finish by the end of May 2009, but acknowledge work may spill into the next semester. Students are presently involved in filming and eventually will whittle down 50 or more hours of interviews into a coherent, one-hour film.

Student producer Brad Panasiti, 23, from Amherst , N.H., says the project has taught him more than how to run a camera or edit on a computer screen. “We are learning interview skills; how to reach out to people; how to get accurate information,” he said.

A final benefit: “We are learning something about how to compose ourselves in our careers,” said Panasiti, who expects a Marine Corps commission in several months. “We will be leading people just like many of [the interview subjects], and we need to know where they are coming from, so we can better understand how to take care of our troops.”