Maine filmmaker, disabled vet tell story of returning home after war

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PORTLAND — While Army Sgt. Matthew Pennington was serving his third tour of duty in Iraq in 2006, he never imagined he would return home to star in a film about a war veteran struggling to adjust to community life.

But that’s exactly what happened.

Although, for Pennington, the time between his deployment and his film acting debut was painful and trying.

On April 29, 2006, Pennington was driving a scout vehicle for a convoy in Iraq. The Humvee he was driving was missing a headlight and, as a result, he didn’t see a bomb insurgents had planted in the road until it was too late. He swerved the truck so the bomb would hit as much of the engine as possible.

Shards of shrapnel exploded through the floorboard, blowing off his left foot and the front of his right shin. A gunner was also injured in the explosion, although not severely. The two other passengers in the vehicle were unharmed.

Pennington was quickly taken back to his base, where he had to wait more than a day before he could be evacuated.

“I kept almost dying,” Pennington said. “I breathed in a lot of fire in the explosion and I had smoke damage already from other explosions.”

Pennington had hypoxia, which meant his lungs could not absorb oxygen well enough for him to survive a low-oxygen plane ride.

However, after a day, the Army doctors decided he was well enough to fly and he was taken to Germany, then to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he began his recovery.

He spent a year at Walter Reed learning how to walk again on a prosthetic leg.

“It took about nine months to walk and about four years to walk pain-free,” he said.

After returning to Maine with his wife, Marjorie, Pennington quickly discovered facilities in the state were not set up to deal with young veteran amputees, so he began looking for a place where he could go to get treatment.

That was where the non-profit Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes came in. The Coalition helped Pennington move to Dallas, where he worked with a poly-trauma team that was able to care for his needs.

After the treatment, Pennington and his wife moved back to Pittsfield.

Then he received an e-mail from a surgeon at Walter Reed passing on an odd request: Aspiring filmmaker Nicholas Brennan, who grew up in Falmouth, was hoping to find a New England veteran to star in the film “A Marine’s Guide to Fishing,” which he wrote and was directing for his senior thesis at New York University.

“I hung out with him for a few hours, did some auditioning on camera, and it was pretty clear from the moment we started talking, Matt was this brilliant, talented guy who would be great to work with,” Brennan said.

So he put together a crew of New Yorkers and Mainers and shot the film in six days over Easter weekend last year. They shot scenes at Handy Boat and Mussel Cove in Falmouth, in South Portland and Kennebunkport.

Brennan said he was inspired to create the film because he wanted to explore the difficult adjustment of coming back to a community after a time away.

“As a film student, I knew I had no standing to tell this story,” Brennan said. “I used the opportunity to meet, interview and get to know a lot of young veterans in New York.”

He said he became close friends with several of the military veterans.

“I started by just listening to them,” he said. “I thought the story that wasn’t really being told — the coming home story is really an obvious one — but no one talks about what comes next. After the parade, after the heroes’ welcome, what happens next? That’s what this story touches on.”

For Pennington, who suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the years after his return, that story was very real.

“At the time this came around, I was withdrawn from society,” he said. “It was a bad time for me, I was dealing with veteran issues. (The film) was a way I could let those types of feelings out and express them but have a medium to carry them.”

The film will be showcased along with seven other local short films as part of the Maine Frozen Shorts festival on March 16 at 7 p.m. at the Patriot Cinemas Nickelodeon on Temple Street. At 8:30 p.m. there will be a question-and-answer session with the filmmakers and actors, followed by an after-party at Sonny’s Restaurant on Exchange Street.

All the proceeds from the event will be donated to the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes.

The film is also scheduled to be shown at the Cantor Film Center in New York City on March 27.

Pennington said he’s seen the film once and that it was strange to see himself on screen.

“I love it, though,” he said. “It’s awesome. I’d love to get a job doing that.”

Until Hollywood comes knocking, though, he’s studying to be a paralegal. His wife works for the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes and they’re living their own version of a Hollywood ending, in a small town in central Maine.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or

Sidebar Elements

While crew members Brendan Barry, left, Jesse Magur and Jeffrey Ryan Kelsey get ready for the shot, writer and director Nicholas Brennan, of Falmouth, and actor Matthew Pennington, of Pittsfield, discuss a scene during production last April on the short film “A Marine’s Guide to Fishing,” filmed in part at Handy Boat Services in Falmouth.