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Clarkson professors make movie about student veteran

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POTSDAM — From the battlefield to the classroom, America’s soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan often take on another big challenge upon returning home: a college education.

A new movie, titled “Nontraditional” and being filmed entirely in the north country, features the fictional story of Erika Byrd, a 26-year-old combat veteran who is starting a new life journey as a college freshman. In the movie, set in 2010, Ms. Byrd has recently returned home from her deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. She had enlisted in the Army just out of high school and after 9/11.

“Like many student veterans, it’s not easy to be in college as a 26-year-old among 18-year-olds, and she’s also had a very different set of experiences than a lot of her fellow students,” said Christina V. Xydias, film producer. “It’s a tough transition for many student veterans like the main character.”

Brian R. Hauser, screenplay writer and film director, and his wife, Ms. Xydias, both are professors in the department of humanities and social sciences at Clarkson University. The Potsdam couple own a production company called Salonista Media and are self-financing the film. Mr. Hauser said this is the biggest feature film of his career so far.

“We’re a small production and everything we wanted to do, we could do here,” Ms. Xydias said. “There are no enormous explosions or fast car chases. It’s set on a college campus.”

She said that although the story isn’t set at a specific university, most of the filming was done on Clarkson’s campus.

Ms. Xydias said suicide and dropout rates are high among veteran students, and colleges finally are starting to be more aware of the social challenges veterans face.

“Colleges are starting to have programs that are specifically designed to help veteran students make the transition to college life,” she said.

The inspiration for the film started with Mr. Hauser’s own experience as a student veteran.

He said that after he graduated from college, he signed up for the military. Although he is not a combat veteran, he served in military intelligence from 1995 to 1999, and was deployed overseas but not in combat situations. After his service, Mr. Hauser went to graduate school.

“My own military experience is one of the more influential things in my life,” he said.

Ms. Xydias said she and her husband conducted nine interviews of women veterans who were pursuing a college education at Ohio State University, which inspired Mr. Hauser to write the story about a woman veteran.

“The stories that we really don’t have are stories about women who are in combat now,” he said. “We have a lot of stories about men who are veterans because it’s a fairly common character background for movies and TV, but we don’t get a lot of that with women. I thought it was really important to tell that story.”

Mr. Hauser said that since the military is going to open up infantry, special forces and other special operations to women, the storyline of the movie is important for all women in combat.

“The movie that we’re telling is a tiny part of that story, but it’s an important one because it’s just not being told,” he said.

Ms. Xydias said the cast and crew have been putting in six- to 14-hour days, six days a week, for three and a half weeks.

Kat Evans, a comedic actress from Chicago, portrays Ms. Byrd. Ms. Evans said she’s been acting since she was 6 years old and is excited about playing the part. She said Ms. Byrd’s character is something her career needed.

“She’s just spent eight years trying to keep other people safe and facing unbelievable danger every day,” Ms. Evans said. “She’s now having a hard time understanding why everybody’s petty lives matter, because the world seems kind of petty after you’ve been through a war.”

Ms. Xydias said the principal photography will be done by the end of July, but more filming will have to be done in the fall when college students come back to the area. She said she and her husband are planning to present the movie at film festivals once the editing is complete.

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