Norwich students produce new documentary, “The War at Home”

04/10/09 7:49AM By Mitch Wertlieb
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VPR Photo/M. Bodette
Virginia Wong, Steve Weber and Brad Panasiti in an editing booth.

(Veterans) "They go to war thinking, after they're done doing they're very, best, you know, Audie Murphy or whomever, they're going to come home a hero and then, they're always going to be a hero right, and they're going to unchanged, there's going to be some idyllic warrior youth, no, no no, laughs"

"28 went over to Iraq, and I was still somewhat immature, when I came back I was a different 29 year old, Lieutenant Jones."

"When people find out that I've been to Iraq or even the close friends that I've seen, or maybe have seen some clips or pictures that I have on my computer, they you know, how are you doing like you're an alien or something. It's like, nah I'm from New Hampshire, I'm fine."

(Wertlieb) Those are veterans, speaking in a new documentary called "The War at Home." It's being produced by students at Norwich University, a military college in Northfield. It's a follow-up to "Vermont Fallen", a 2007 film that featured interviews with family members of 29 soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And these new interviews tell yet another tale: Because the soldiers being interviewed are speaking to their younger counterparts who will soon be facing many of the same lethal dangers when they are deployed overseas.

We recently visited Norwich University to find out more about the film-and the students who asked these veteran soldiers to open up about what they saw during the most dangerous stretches of the war in Iraq.

(Estill) They don't realize that they have that much in common; they tend to isolate and be quiet and not share their stories.

(Wertlieb) That's Norwich Communications Professor William Estill, who's helping the students produce "The War at Home." He says it's clear the soldiers needed to reach out, but getting that to happen proved difficult.

Brad Panasiti is a 23-year old from Amherst, New York, who will be a commissioned officer in the Marines when he graduates in May. He says the initial attempts to get veterans to talk were especially awkward:

(Panasiti) Some of those bad things that happened in those earlier interviews is that we jumped right to some of those questions and they completely closed off, we didn't get the full answer and it was just kind of like, well, it wasn't a wasted interview, it was just that we didn't get what we wanted.

(Wertlieb) When the students did get what they wanted, it took a toll on both the soldier and the student interviewer.

(Wong)  Before I stepped into my tent, um, you know, I heard that my buddy was the one that got hit with a mortar (pause) and I  just remember freezing (pause) you know (crying) and it felt like my world had just come to a crashing halt.

(Wertlieb) That's 23-year old Virginia Wong, being interviewed by her classmate Amanda Plachek. She is the only student in this group who's also a subject in the film. She's a native of Hawaii, and was just 18 when she was deployed to Iraq. If not for her military uniform, you'd be unlikely to guess she's a veteran. She stands not much over five feet tall, and looks as if she weighs barely 100 pounds. But Wong was an Army specialist driving trucks in the Sunni Triangle when some of the worst violence occurred 4 years ago. Her friend Amanda Plachek says--until this film--she'd never asked Virginia about her time in Iraq:

(Plachek) It became quite an emotional interview and we both ended up in tears, and afterwards, we really didn't talk about it afterwards, it was kind of like, that was the moment, it happened, now I know and you kind of leave it at that. 

(Wertlieb) Virginia Wong says talking about what happened, while difficult, helped her find common ground with other veterans.

(Wong) You definitely grow up a lot faster when you're over there...I think that's another thing we all had in common. I remember sitting in on these interviews and when the interviewees are talking about what they're experiencing or what they've been through, I just kind of sometimes take myself back in...I usually just shake my head and be like, yeah, that sounds very familiar with something that I've gone through. 

(Wertlieb) The students say achieving any return to normalcy is nearly impossible without veterans at least talking about their experiences. And Professor Estill says returning soldiers don't go looking for professional help:

(Estill) They are very anti-counseling, they want to hold it within, talk to their buddies about it who know what their experiences are, and you know, that can be a problem.

(Wertlieb) That's why the students feel "The War at Home" project is critical. 22-year old New Jersey native Steve Weber will also join the Marines as an officer.

(Weber) I looked at it as, you know, I can hear these veterans and cause I'm commissioning too, I can take these stories and I can learn from what they've learned what they have told what they have gained from being deployed. And I can apply that to when I go in and when I commission. 

(Wertlieb) In some ways, these students are like any young people in college. They joked that we should take our time asking questions, because they had permission to skip class for as long as we wanted to speak with them. But when 24-year old Glen Eckmeier of Connecticut talks about people who protested America's invasion of Iraq in 2003, his mood darkens:

(Eckmeier) I do get a little angry at them, it's not the fact that they're against my point of view, it's more the fact that I'm pretty confident that they've been misinformed. They don't know about the kids getting the candy, the soccer balls, they just know about people dying, oh that's bad. 

(Wertlieb) Virgina Wong has a different view of the War, but still wants people to understand she took an oath to serve, and her service is her job:

(Wong) I think when I was over there, and even coming home-you know, the main thing I tell people back home is----I personally don't agree with going over there but...support the troops...it's all about the troops.

(Wertlieb) And these students are very likely going to be leading those troops. Amanda Placek says she and many of her classmates already have their assignments and know they're going to be in harm's way:

(Plachek) But that's ok because we're all trained to deal with things like that and it's good that we do have these experiences being told to us because it helps to prepare us, we know that it's not going to be a video game when we go over there, it's not going to be a cool advertising ad on tv it's going to be real life.

(Wertlieb) When the film is finished, it will be screened for veterans, their families, and Norwich University classmates who could eventually be deployed.

For VPR News, I'm Mitch Wertlieb.

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