University Park

Student veterans share experiences through short films online

Program teaches veterans how to use filmmaking to tell personal stories of the Iraq War

University Park, Pa. -- David Walker returned from military service in Iraq with countless memories and experiences -- the kind that would stay with him for a lifetime. Fighting in a war is not something one easily talks about. In fact, some never do, but Walker was open to reflecting on his experience. He just needed the right outlet.

Walker, 27, found that outlet through a unique course at Penn State. The recent biochemistry and molecular biology graduate enrolled in English 497: Narrative, Oral History and New Media Technologies in spring 2009. The goal of the course was to help returning veterans become filmmakers by creating short documentaries about the experiences of the Iraq War. Dubbed "Back from Iraq: The Veterans' Stories Project," these films, along with student interviews, class footage and course materials, are now available at online.

"I hadn't interacted a whole lot with other veterans and so I wasn't sure how I was going to react," said Walker, a former specialist in the U.S. Army. "I wasn't sure how I was going to feel."

Pundits and politicians usually tell the story of the Iraq War. The stories of the veterans themselves -- the people who lived the war -- are so often missing, and veterans are not often given the forum or the time to share their experiences.

Students were not required to share their own stories but if they wanted to, the framework was there.

“We were careful not to pressure them to share anything they did want to; rather, we trained them to work with other veterans to tell their stories,” said Nathan Tobey, coordinating producer at WPSU and course co-instructor.

Walker, who is from Danville, Pa., said he learned a lot about himself in the process.

"It's hard to take all your experiences, skills and knowledge and put together something for other people to see," Walker said. "You have to take the initiative to do it. You have to put forth the effort to learn something you might not get right away, and the courage to do something that means something to you."

The students gained hands-on experience in documentary filmmaking and oral history interviewing while learning pre- and post-production video techniques.

"It did create a supportive environment because they were all veterans all trying to do something similar," Tobey said. "They had a similar experience and now they were working on these films at the same time."

"In each one of those documentaries, we accomplished the goal of telling someone's story," said Shirley Moody, assistant professor of English and co-instructor. "We could show the personal impact of this war on student veterans and we were able to have that story told by several different people, several different voices."

The "Back from Iraq" project received funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's Public Media Innovation Fund.

To view these personal stories and learn more about the class, please visit online.

WPSU serves central Pennsylvania with programming, educational services and community outreach. Its public media services produce, acquire and distribute programs that address local interests and reflect the diverse cultural, political, geographic and demographic characteristics of an audience within central Pennsylvania. WPSU is part of Penn State Outreach, the largest unified outreach organization in American higher education. Penn State Outreach serves more than 5 million people each year, delivering more than 2,000 programs to people in all 67 Pennsylvania counties, all 50 states and 114 countries worldwide.

To watch the films and learn more about the 'Back from Iraq' project, click on the image above. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated July 12, 2021