One year ago, Matthew Pennington couldn’t shake your hand without feeling you were out to get him. He’s certainly not an unfriendly guy. Far from it. But the lingering effects of his time spent fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan turned his normally warm, laid-back attitude into something darker and less trusting of others.
“I was really withdrawn. I was worried about what people thought about me. I would make things up in my head about what people meant,” said Pennington, now 27 and a resident of Pittsfield. “A friendly hello wasn’t a friendly hello; it was like ‘Why are you saying hello to me?’ It was all fictitious. It was all in my head.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder “really made it hard to talk to anybody at all,” he said.
Pennington knew he had to do something to break free of the depression, social anxiety and anger that had trapped him for nearly four years. He received care in army hospitals and from psychologists, but they just weren’t doing the trick.
His salvation came from an unlikely source: a lead role in a short film, directed by Maine native Nicholas Brennan.
That film, “A Marine’s Guide to Fishing,” is a powerful, captivating 15-minute peek into the life of a soldier returning home to a small Maine town. It will be screened at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 7, at Bangor Mall Cinemas. The film is at once an important reminder of the struggles veterans face after their service overseas has come to an end, and a real-life story of healing.
Pennington was 23 years old in 2006, and already had several tours of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan under his belt. He was traveling in a convoy with the 82nd Airborne Division near Tikrit, Iraq, in April of that year, when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle. He lost his left leg below the knee, and his right leg has severe tissue damage. He received outpatient therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington before returning to Maine in August 2006.
In the ensuing years, post-traumatic stress disorder left Pennington alienated from his family and community. He moved to Texas briefly, hoping the change of scenery and treatment options there might help. It didn’t, so he returned to Pittsfield with his wife, Marjorie. By the winter of 2010, Pennington was at a breaking point.
“It’s not that I had bad treatment. It just didn’t fit. It was a make-it or break-it time,” he said. “I had to do something to move on. I couldn’t live like that any more.”
That’s where Nicholas Brennan came in. Brennan is a Willard T.C. Johnson fellow at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and has worked for The New York Times, Current TV, ABC News and Vice Magazine. His first film, a documentary called “Hard Rock Havana,” detailed the underground heavy metal scene in Cuba, and was shown at the TriBeCa Film Festival. For his next feature, he decided to tackle a topic that he feels is under-represented.
“I wanted to do a film about something I wasn’t familiar with. It was more about the discovery, for me,” said Brennan, 22, who grew up in Portland. “Veterans’ issues are something that I think a lot of us aren’t very cognizant about. There are so many young people that are going through that experience, and a lot of us don’t really think about it.”
Brennan developed the script for “A Marine’s Guide to Fishing” after speaking with veterans and veterans organizations in order to ensure the film’s accuracy. Once the script was done, it came time to find the right person to play Connor, the main character, who returns from Iraq to his small, coastal Maine hometown. A contact at Walter Reed agreed to pass along Brennan’s very specific casting call, posting it on an email listserv targeted specifically to veterans who have lost limbs.
“We set out to find a young, male, veteran amputee from New England who could act. There aren’t too many people who can fill that part,” said Brennan. “We got about two-dozen guys expressing interest. Out of all those, Matthew was the first guy we saw. I drove to Sangerville to talk to him, and it was pretty clear from the get-go that he was going to be perfect for the part.”
Aside from acting in school plays, Pennington had no acting experience. But that didn’t really faze him. Connor’s fictional world is strikingly similar to Pennington’s all-too-real experiences.
“The character was something I knew pretty well, so it felt pretty natural,” said Pennington. “The weirdest thing for me was not being able to help out on set. I was supposed to be an actor, and I was trying to help carry things and lift things and stuff. I guess you’re not supposed to do that on movie sets.”
Over the course of a week in the spring of 2010, Pennington, Brennan, a small cast of about five people, and a small film crew shot the movie in and around Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth. The sparkling water, rough-hewn boatyard and creaking wooden docks are a picturesque backdrop for a story that’s sad and violent, but ultimately uplifting.
“It came down to a story about a young veteran coming home, and what that process is like,” Brennan said. “The issue of finding employment is a huge one. It’s pretty shocking what the level of unemployment among young veterans is. These are people that are well-trained and pressure-proven, and they’re having a hard time finding work. After the parades and the hero’s welcome, what happens next? It’s often a very sobering reality.”
For Pennington, the process of acting out the pain and anger associated with postwar homecoming trauma — both fictional and real — was the best kind of therapy imaginable.
“I just feel better. It kind of made everything a lot clearer,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m gonna freak out any more. I feel normal again. I can move on.”
Pennington’s wife Marjorie has noticed the transformation too.
“He has more confidence. It’s a lot easier to approach him. He doesn’t have that look of, ‘I’m gonna whoop your butt’ any more,” she said. “He’s got a smile on his face. He can give hugs again. Nick’s family is a very huggy family, so he had to get used to it. He’s loosened up a lot. We’re so proud of him.”
So far, “A Marine’s Guide” has been shown at First Run Film Festival at New York University, where Pennington received a faculty commendation for excellence in acting, and at the Maine Frozen Shorts Film Festival in Portland on March 16.
It also has been picked up by the GI Film Festival, an annual celebration of the successes and sacrifices of the service member through the medium of film. This year’s event will be held May 9-15 in Washington, D.C. The Penningtons would like to see the film be shown by the USO, as well. Overall, the response has been positive.
“We’ve had a very warm reception. What I’ve heard from people is that the story felt real, and the experience the character had in the movie rings true,” said Brennan. “My experience is mostly in documentary, so there’s that realist thread that runs through it. I think that helped it overall. If it can shed some light on what veterans go through, then I’m thrilled.”
“A Marine’s Guide to Fishing” will be shown at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 7, at Bangor Mall Cinemas. Brennan and Pennington will be on hand to lead discussions. An afterparty for the film is set for 8:30 p.m. at Texas Roadhouse. A $5 donation benefits the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes. For information, visit nicholasbrennan.com.