NORTHFIELD, Vt. – As a class project, producing a documentary about Vermonters killed in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed fitting: the videographers attend a military school and Vermont has lost more citizens per capita than most states.
The nearly complete documentary has helped draw together the families of soldiers who died in the streets of Fallujah and Ramadi or on a remote Afghan plain.
The families now celebrate together the birthdays of the fallen and support each other by attending the dedications of bridges or playgrounds. They march together in parades wearing T-shirts emblazoned with photos of their loved ones. Sometimes they get together simply to be together.
"We stay in touch almost daily," said Marion Gray of Calais, whose stepson, Jamie, was killed in June 2004 by a roadside bomb in Iraq. "There's already been some very obvious changes in some of the families that were having a really hard time. Some are actually smiling again."
She and her husband were the first to sit for the Norwich cameras.
The documentary, produced by about 15 students as part of a communications class, includes interviews with the families of 21 service members with Vermont connections.
The families will be the first to view the finished product, an hour-long video that the university hopes will be aired on local television stations and, with luck, perhaps some cable networks.
"We made a vow that it was just going to tell their stories," said Norwich senior Sean Dolan, 22, of Braintree, Mass. "They liked the idea that their son, their brother and their husband would be included."
Communications professor William Estill and the students interviewed mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. Even though some of the service members died almost four years ago, their families' pain appears as raw as the day of their funerals.
"They just wanted somebody to care," Dolan said. "We kind of became that ear for them."
In a 10-minute promotional video, tearful family members talk about their loss, their pride, the emptiness and sometimes, their remorse.
"You raise a child up 18 years, 20 years, 22 years whatever the case may be. As a parent it's your job to protect them no matter what, even though it's out of your control," said Alan Bean Sr., of Bridport, whose son was killed in a mortar attack in May 2004 in Iraq. "I went through the same thing. If I hadn't had the discussions about him joining the military, he might be here today."
The project also gave the students an intimacy with the grief that the families share.
"It's a class, but when you're doing something like this it's not a burden," said Paul Pimental, 23, a senior from Fall River, Mass.
"They are very respectful and extremely professional for such young people," Gray said of the students. "They are part of our family now. They are included in everything we do."
Gray said she contacted the university after seeing something about the project in the local newspaper. At first, many of the family members were reluctant to speak. Some were apprehensive after having bad experiences with the news media. Others didn't want to show to the public the depths of their grief.
After being interviewed, Gray started working with Estill to help persuade other families to participate.
In a conversation with one widow, Gray learned of a ceremony in Washington in May to commemorate American soldiers killed in action. She helped charter a bus for Vermont families.
"Without Norwich University we would have had a more difficult time coming together and forming this group," she said. "Norwich probably would not have been able to get all the families for this documentary. Both of us have been successful because of the other."
Gray said she hoped the families will remain close for the rest of their lives.
"They were the only group, even our relatives, well meaning neighbors didn't understand," she said. "You can't understand until you've been through this. There was no pretense of holding back anything. We could act and feel like ourselves."