Norwich student producers make new ‘Vermont Fallen’ documentary

Prof. William Estill (right) and students interview a mother for the “Vermont Fallen” project.

Prof. William Estill (right) and students interview a mother for the “Vermont Fallen” project.

Vermont is one of the smallest states in the country, and it also happens to be one of the most distinguished states when it comes to service in the armed forces. Vermont had the most military casualties per capita in the Iraq War out of all 50 states, and the tremendous sacrifice of dying for one’s country is especially understood by the small communities of this state.

A group of NU communications majors are working on a documentary that tells the stories of Vermont’s “Gold Star” families. These are the immediate families of soldiers, marines, and sailors that were killed in action. The award-winning video project, which focuses on those who lost their lives in the wars in the Middle East, is the “Vermont Fallen.”

It’s far more than an academic project to those students involved in shooting the documentary.

“You do have to mentally prepare yourself in order to do one of these interviews, because this is not an ordinary interview,” said Paul Barnard, a 23-year-old senior communications major from Northfield, Vt. “You’re not interviewing some business owner about their company. You’re interviewing parents about their dead child.”

This year, a new addition to the video project will feature Chief Petty Officer Brian Bill, a U.S. Navy Seal who was killed while serving in Afghanistan in 2011. The NU alum from the class of 2001 is well-known as a result of the annual Brian Bill Memorial Challenge created in his honor and Bill’s addition to the “Vermont Fallen” project has a great connection to the student body. On Feb. 22, Norwich will host the second annual Brian Bill Memorial Challenge, hosted by the Golden Anchor Society.

Prof. Bill Estill first started working on the “Vermont Fallen” project in 2006, and students then interviewed the families of the first 25 Vermont servicemen and women who were killed in action. It was considered a success and received a lot of media coverage, including segments on NBC Nightly News and other national television appearances. However, the seven men who had been killed after the original documentary had not had their story told, so Estill decided to make a new “Vermont Fallen” documentary.

“Last spring I started working with Prof. Estill in Advanced TV class, which is one of our media composer classes,” said Lindsay Evans, a 21-year-old senior communications major from Canterbury, N.H. “He basically told me what it was about, and told me to start coming in and working on it.”

What makes the project different for students is the emotional aspect of working with families that have suffered such a loss. At the same time, there is a lot to learn from the mothers, fathers, siblings, and friends.

“I feel like I’m helping them tell their story, and they all have a story, and we’re helping them relieve some of that pressure,” said Jesse Navarro, a 21-year-old senior communications major from Martinsburg, W. Va. “Years have gone by, but sometimes the pain never goes away. And I think this is one way that they could get more personal, and I applaud them because they’re talking to a bunch of strangers, a bunch of college kids. And they’re telling their whole story.”

The project teaches many lessons to the communications students who conduct the interviews and interact with the families – lessons about life, as well as how to run a film production team effectively.

“It has helped me with my planning and preparing. You have to plan and prepare before you do anything, and you have to have a game-plan. It made me responsible and attentive to people’s needs,” said Kerry Gaspard, a 23-year-old communications major from Hallandale Beach, Fla. “It showed me what’s going to happen in the real world if I want to work in the film industry or on documentaries, or broadcasting in general. It’s a team effort, a group effort, because without everybody it wouldn’t be possible. Everybody plays their own roles. I might be editing something one day and someone else might take it over the next.”

A major key to successfully completing the project is learning to collaborate. “I’ve learned a lot about teamwork and dedicating my time to a bigger project,” said Evans. “Not everybody in your group is going to agree with you, agree with your opinions, agree with how you’re editing. You have to work around that and change. You can’t be stuck on one thing.”

The whole process from the interviews to the final product is extremely tedious and lengthy. It starts out with the actual interviews with the student producers and Prof. Estill meeting the members of the family being interviewed. Usually the interviews occur at the family’s home or wherever is easiest for both of the groups involved.

“The typical shoot is we’ll go to the house and they’ll come out and greet us. Every single family we have interviewed was extremely nice to us,” said Barnard. “We go in the house and we set up and ask if we could move stuff around and we try to get the best shots possible. And then we interview as many people as we can. Usually it’s the parents and the siblings.”

When the students come in, they are not just setting up cameras and getting ready to shoot interviews; the crew is really meeting the families and getting to know them on a very personal level, especially when it gets to the interviewing process about the fallen.

“It starts at the day they were born, with the mother. And you talk about them growing up, and their hobbies, to their military career, and how they were affected by 9/11,” said Oliver Czuma, a 21-year-old junior communications major from Chicago, Ill. “It’s important for the families and other people to remember their loved ones that were killed in either Afghanistan or Iraq.”

To lighten up the mood a little, the students do the little things for the members of the family, like giving them tissues when they are needed. Also, the team brings a teddy bear with them to the shoots.

“We bring Roosevelt. He’s our bear, and we let the “Vermont Fallen” families hold on to him,” said Evans. “It’s an emotional thing, and we know people are going to cry, but Roosevelt really does bring a smile to people’s faces.”

While every family has a loss in common, they also vary in many ways. “Yes, they all lost a soldier or a loved one, but each family is unique and each family is different, so it’s always different,” said Navarro. “And there’s really no true way to describe it, it’s just a lot of emotions around. And sometimes it’s hard to not notice it. As the production people, we’re just filming it and just hearing it, and we are affected by it.”

A recurring theme that kept coming up during interviews was the impact of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11th, 2001. This had a strong impact on every single one of the fallen military men being interviewed about.

“I’d say that, for most of the soldiers that were killed, 9/11 was a big thing for them when they were kids. The people that died serving were a bit older than us, but they died at our age,” said Czuma. “They remember it (the terrorist attacks) more, they were more mature, so they were able to understand what was happening more than you or I, and they wanted to get justice. They wanted to stop anything like that from happening to our country again. It brought them together, and they wanted to serve because of it.”

For most of these students, it was the first time being involved in such an emotional and sad interview. It was also the first time that they were interviewing people who were crying in front of the camera. Many of the student producers broke down too. “I cried during Anthony Rosa’s interview with his mom. She was very passionate about what she was saying,” Gaspard said. “You could see the honesty in her eyes, that she missed her son.”

“The shoots are definitely very emotional for both parties, the family and us,” Barnard said, considering the emotional bond that develops between the film crew and the families of the fallen. “Most of the time we were leaving the shoot in tears. These families are just pouring their emotions out to us.”

The first time interviewing a fallen service member’s family is a brand- new experience. “I learned a lot, especially my first experience. My first time doing it, I had no idea what to expect,” said Navarro.

“I remembered seeing the little news clip about it, about the past productions. But even that couldn’t prepare me for what I heard the first time I did it,” Navarro said.

The interview process can be exhausting for many of the producers, especially after the first shoot.

“I just remember after all of that the whole trip back and when I got back to school, I went to my room and I was trying to take in what just happened because it was so much for me to take in. It took a couple days just to process just what happened,” said Navarro. “It’s like that for every family but for me, personally, the Fortin family is a special family because they were the first trip that I did.”

“Each family has sad stories, they all have pain and all that, and I’m glad we’re doing something like this, and it helps you put into perspective what they are actually sacrificing,” Navarro said. “You always hear about it. Talk is one thing but actually experiencing it and knowing what it is a whole other thing.”

Even though there are a lot of tears and sad stories being told during these interviews, the students feel like they are assisting with the healing process for them.

“I feel like sometimes we really are helping them. We’re helping them move on and we’re keeping their memory alive. Sometimes, I feel like we hurt them in a way, because we bring up those painful memories,” Evans said. “But in a way I feel like in the end, they will realize and we’ll realize, that we’ve let them move on and see that everything will be okay and that people really do appreciate what they did for their country.”

Conducting the interviews and honoring the fallen brings up a strong sense of pride for students in what it means to be American.

“I definitely have a better sense of patriotism. I know the importance of life and family,” said Czuma. “I was able to understand different stages of grief and really honor different people, even if I don’t know them. Brian Bill is one of my heroes, and he graduated from here in 2001. However, I never met him, but I feel like I know him, just because of the interviews and knowing his story, and then being able to tell his story to other people. You learn to respect those who came before you.”

The shoots can even be life-changing for the students involved, and it is something that they can take pride in helping produce. Students in the production add that they are also learning a lot about communicating with people.

“You never really know when the last time you’re going to see someone, because these families thought their sons were going to come home, and never did,” said Czuma. “And you learn so much from the shoots, like professionalism; in general you learn how to be a better person by consoling a grieving mother or family member. It’s an opportunity that I’ll never get again, and it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Keen communication skills are needed to go into a stranger’s home and ask them questions about a dead family member.

“You gain the technical and social aspects of media diplomacy and how to deal with people,” said Barnard. “But these “Vermont Fallen” shoots bring that up to another level. They’re sharing their deepest feelings with you. It’s on a very personal level that we’re connecting. So I’ve certainly learned how to deal with the public on an extremely personal level.”

Besides producing the documentary for the families, the students also have other motivations to successfully complete the video. A major goal of the student producers is to enter and win in a couple different film festivals.

“We’re going to try to submit this film to many film festivals, like the College Emmy’s, and the College Television Festival. We’re going to try to submit it to the Toronto Sundance, all the major film festivals that will help us tell these families’ stories,” Barnard said.

Winning awards on this production would be a huge accomplishment for this young team of producers. “We have one major goal. We want to accomplish the video, not only for the families and not only for Vermont, but also because we want to enter it in for the College Emmy’s, which is a big deal,” said Evans. “We haven’t won a student Emmy in over 10 years. So it’s a big deal if we were to win it.”

For all the student producers, the project has had a much greater impact than they ever thought it would have. “It’s by far the most important thing I’ve ever done, and it doesn’t include just school,” said Czuma. “This is life in general. This is huge. It’s not just about learning.”

Awards aside, a new appreciation and respect for life is taken away from these encounters with everyday normal people who had to suffer an extraordinary loss.

“Being on a project like that, and seeing all of it, has really put me in a new perspective of exactly what families go through in wartime, and just more of a reason why everybody in here is committed to this documentary,” said Navarro. “And why it’s been special going to a military school.”

Evans said the work has also provided a deeper understanding of life, death, and grief: “That when somebody dies that’s so close to you, it’s so hard. . . it’s tragic and devastating.” She added, “but if you don’t move on, then life won’t go on. And you have other responsibilities. And you can always keep their memories, always. And you can always go every day knowing that you will never forget them.”

The Vermont Fallen project has clearly had a great impact.

“You can’t get this in any classroom environment, this is real life,” said Czuma. “So there’s no doubt about it, that this is the most interesting and demanding class that I’ve had.”

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