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Veteran to share film and his own story about PTSD

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sgt. Matthew Pennington remembers the moment he began to accept that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Pennington, 28, acted the lead role in "A Marine's Guide to Fishing," a short film that debuted last year. It depicts a Marine's return to his former job at a dockyard, one year after being severely wounded in war.

During filming of the 15-minute movie, Pennington felt he could identify with his character's struggles. But it wasn't until he watched himself on the big screen that he stopped separating himself from the main character.

"I was just, like, 'Wow,' and was able to see it," he said. "It really got the gears turning."

Pennington and the film's writer and director, Nicholas Brennan, will host a conversation following a screening of the film at 7 p.m. May 24 at Charleston Baptist Temple. The event is free and open to the public.

Pennington and the event's organizers said they hope the evening educates people about PTSD and reminds them that helping veterans should be a community effort.

In some ways, the movie reflects aspects of Pennington's life. He joined the Army at 17 and completed three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. At 23, he was hit by an improvised explosive device; both his legs were injured and he ended up losing his left leg below the knee. Pennington was honorably retired as a sergeant and received the State of Maine Silver Star and a Purple Heart.

After returning home, he struggled making the transition back into life in the United States. People often only have negative impressions of what happens during a war, Pennington said, and they don't know about the humanitarian acts that take place.

"It's difficult to constantly have to undertake the consistent barrage of people's opinions," he said.

As Pennington tried to readjust, he was cast in "A Marine's Guide to Fishing," which confronted the same issues he was facing. Once the film premiered, Pennington -- and his story -- started gaining national attention.

Episcopal minister Jim Lewis, who helped organized Pennington's appearance in Charleston, first learned about Pennington on Jan. 1, 2012, when Pennington's story was featured on the front page of The New York Times. In the article, Pennington mentioned that it's difficult to talk about the people he killed during his time overseas. The comment resonated with Lewis.

"That just rang so true and so profoundly tragic to me," Lewis said. "I've seen this over and over again with the people I've worked with."

Lewis contacted Pennington and scheduled his trip to Charleston. In addition to the conversation at the Baptist Temple, Pennington will also visit with people at Covenant House at 1:30 p.m. the same day. The goal is to reach out to the house's regular clients, Executive Director Ellen Allen said, but anyone is welcome to attend.

Lewis said he hopes Pennington's visit to Charleston reminds people it's time to work together to help veterans returning from war, not rehash the debate over the wars.

Pennington said the show has been useful because it teaches people about a PTSD and provides an opportunity for discussion. The movie generates myriad questions from mothers, wives and siblings of soldiers who are suffering, he said.

"What we're finding out is we've gathered all this great data, but people are still very lost," Pennington said. "Being able to see it on film, they're able to associate with it better."

Reach Alison Matas at alison.matas@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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