Where Soldiers Come From is a wrenching and deeply absorbing documentary1 that follows a group of friends from a small town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula over the course of four years as they finish high school, join the National Guard, head off to Afghanistan for a nine-month tour of duty, and return to their hometown, haunted by the war’s lingering effects on them. The film centers on Specialist Dominic Fredianelli, a talented graffiti artist and muralist, and his pals Cole Smith and Matthew “Bodi” Beaudoin, who are tasked in Afghanistan with clearing roads of bombs and IEDs — not by disarming them Hurt Locker-style, but by rumbling around the countryside in a convoy of indestructible MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) armored vehicles, locating bombs simply by running over them and setting them off, like human crash-test dummies. While the evolution of effective bomb-resistant vehicles has saved hundreds, if not thousands, of American lives, director Heather Courtney calls the Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs) suffered through these blasts “our new signature war wound.”
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced a lot of powerful docs, but Where Soldiers Come From is among the best, joining Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s Restrepo, Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro’s Body of War, Michael Tucker’s Gunner Palace, and Terry Sanders’ Fighting for Life.
Where Soldiers Come From opened Friday, September 9 in New York and premieres September 25 in the Upper Peninsula town of Calumet, with more openings across the country throughout the fall.2 Grantland’s Davy Rothbart spoke with Fredianelli about his decision to join the National Guard, his time in Afghanistan, and the long, difficult readjustment to life back at home.
The movie opens in Calumet, Mich., on September 25, in Detroit on September 30, and in October will play in Los Angeles; Ann Arbor, Lansing, Grand Rapids, and Saginaw, Mich.; Bend, Ore.; Austin, Texas; Indianapolis, San Diego, and Evanston, Ill.
Grantland: You grew up in Hancock, Mich., in the northern tip of the U.P., a town of about 4,000. From my hometown, Ann Arbor, it takes less time to drive to New York City or Washington, D.C., than to Hancock. What motivated you and your friends from Hancock to join the National Guard?
Dominic Fredianelli: I had an uncle in the National Guard, and he’d mentioned to me that the sign-up bonus had gone up to $20,000, and that college would be free. My mind was instantly set on having that money and the free education — my parents didn’t make a lot of money, and I knew they couldn’t afford to help me pay for school. The day I went to the recruiting station, I brought a couple of friends with me, and we all signed up. Then more and more of our friends followed our lead, until about 10 guys had joined. Basically, we’re from a small, rural town, and we all grew up poor — the recruiters didn’t really have to work too hard to recruit us, just show us the money.
Grantland: Did you know that joining the National Guard meant that you’d be heading overseas to fight?
Fredianelli: I was so ignorant. Obviously, I knew I was signing up during wartime, but the recruiters said that our local National Guard unit was deployed in Iraq, and that Guard units can only be deployed overseas every three or four years — what they call a “grace period.” They use these grace periods as a tool to get people to join and to make you feel safe. They didn’t promise we’d never be shipped off to war, but they made it out like it was a real longshot. I’m sure they knew the truth.
Grantland: How long was it before you shipped out?
Fredianelli: Well, it was a year or two. First, we had 14 weeks of basic training, and then came back to Hancock. One weekend a month we’d get into army mode and have our training sessions, and the rest of the month we lived regular civilian lives. I went to trade school for a year, then started art school at Finlandia University. Not long after that, we got our marching orders — next stop: Forward Operating Base Salerno, in Khost province, eastern Afghanistan.
Grantland: In the film, your friend Cole Smith admits that he’s terrified of heading off to war. How’d you feel about it going in?
Fredianelli: I was scared, too. Scared for myself, but also scared for my friends. I’d roped a lot of them into joining the National Guard with me, so I felt responsible for them coming home in one piece. I kept thinking, What if we lose someone over there?
Grantland: What was it like in Afghanistan? How dangerous did it feel?
Fredianelli: In a way, it was actually quite safe. It’s not like there were people dying every day, at least not where we were. We only got shot at a few times; just north of us, people were getting shot at daily. Our job was to find roadside bombs, mines, and IEDs. We drove in a convoy of 12 MRAP armored vehicles, just five or 10 miles per hour. The days dragged by really slowly, until my friends started getting blown up and shot at. It’s the weirdest thing when a bomb goes off. Because after days and days of nothing happening, you finally start to relax, and then BOOM. You never know when to expect it.
Grantland: How many times did your vehicle set off an IED?
Fredianelli: I only got blown up once. The bomb went off right underneath me, lifted my truck in the air, and flipped it on its side. I blacked out for 10 or 20 seconds, and they told me I’d gotten a pretty bad concussion. We were lucky to go over so late in the war. The technology’s better, and the MRAPs have these V-shaped hulls that reflect the blast outward instead of inward; they’re really well designed. In a Humvee, a bomb like the one I hit would’ve destroyed the vehicle and shredded me. Still, there’s a massive bomb going off five feet from you, and you feel the results. But some of my friends had it a lot worse. Bodi got blown up so many times — maybe seven or eight times — that the doctors told him he couldn’t go out on missions anymore; he’d had too many concussions.
Grantland: Were there any things you appreciated about Afghanistan?
Fredianelli: Well, we had enough free time to get really good on the Xbox, either Call of Duty or NHL Hockey. And in a way, Afghanistan was a beautiful place. I often wondered what it would be like there if they weren’t always at war. I liked a couple of the humanitarian missions we did, when we brought food and water to people. And some of the villagers we met were really nice. They were so desperately poor — I knew sometimes they’d accept money from the Taliban to hide mines on their farmland, but it was the only way they could keep their crops or send their kids to school. If someone invaded the U.S. of A., people would be doing the same things. Our job felt pointless in a way. We were only there to clear the bombs, and the bombs were only planted because we were there. It’s not like the locals were planting them to blow up each other.
Grantland: In the movie, your dad worries that you’ll come back from Afghanistan transformed. What were things like when you guys returned to the U.P.?
Fredianelli: The day we came home was pretty surreal. I had crazy butterflies — I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh or smile or anything. You just couldn’t believe you were actually done with your time in Afghanistan and back home again. The first couple of weeks were really good. I got right back into school and moved into a place with my girlfriend, Ashley. Everything was rolling. But it wasn’t long before it all blew up in my face.
You just can’t shed that constant sense of readiness and hyperalertness. I’d be driving to school, and on the road I’d be hyperaware of everything and overly tentative. I started getting terrible headaches all the time, which are a common, delayed effect of severe concussions. I was irritable, always on edge. I collided with Ashley constantly. We had a complete inability to enter each other’s worlds. It can be hard to really communicate your experience, even if somebody really cares to listen. We ended up breaking up. I’d been drinking a lot, and without her around I drank even more. I could down a handle of Jameson in a night by myself.
I dreaded going to Walmart. It felt so busy there, and all people wanted to talk about with me was the war. They treated me like a war hero, and only saw me through the prism of my time in Afghanistan. I was like, “You know, there’s more to me than the nine months I spent overseas.” Not that it’s bad for people to have questions, but it becomes the only thing anyone talks to you about. It was hard to have a normal conversation — sometimes I felt normal, but mostly I was in a state of agitation. Even the simplest things caused me stress. In Afghanistan you do everything in pairs, in case something goes down, and I found that at home I couldn’t even go to the store by myself. My friends were all going through the same things, except maybe a little worse. Often, drugs entered the picture.
Grantland: You know, the media tends to focus on the extreme cases, veterans who come home and commit suicide or shoot up a post office. But to me, the less sensational but still very real difficulties you and your friends have had seem a lot more common.
Fredianelli: Yeah, I think so. The VA is just trying to get a handle on TBIs. No one really knows the effects of them. It’s scary. Think about all the research coming out about football players and the long-term effects of their concussions. We’re the first generation of soldiers undergoing this, because the way it used to be the blast would’ve killed us. I’m happy to be alive, but it’s a mistake to look at any of us and say, “Oh, that guy’s fine,” just because our injuries are invisible. Brain injuries can be devastating, even if you can’t see them.
I think people looked at me and they saw that I still had all my arms and legs and figured I was all right. But after a few good weeks, I went downhill pretty quickly. I started having trouble with school. I was frustrated that I wasn’t doing well, and I brought that frustration home with me. I started ignoring my parents. I took everything out on Ashley. I was completely out of touch with my emotions. After me and Ashley broke up, I really bottomed out. Things got pretty rough for a while.
Grantland: How’d you turn things around?
Fredianelli: I think I was saved by two things. Art saved me; my drive to make art. I put up a huge mural at school, and channeled a lot of my feelings about the war into it. It was really therapeutic and helped me get my mind straight. Without that outlet, I wouldn’t have made it. And also, being involved with this film gave me so much perspective. I was actually able to review the tape — you know, watch hours and hours of footage of myself before I’d gone overseas, and then see what I was acting like after I came home. That gave me a chance to see how much the war had changed me. I could see why some of my relationships with people had not gone that well since I’d been back. And talking about everything with [director] Heather [Courtney] and the other filmmakers, and now with people who’ve seen the movie at festivals, it’s kind of a rare opportunity to get a handle on my experience. So I guess I’ve been lucky. But the problem is most soldiers don’t get to have a film crew documenting their lives, and they never get a chance to look back on their experience the way me and Cole and Bodi have.
Grantland: What kinds of things do people say to you after they see the movie?
Fredianelli: Veterans seem to like it because they really relate to what me, Cole, and Bodi go through on-screen. And a lot of other people have told me that they don’t know anyone who’s fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, so they had no concept for what it’s like to be over there and what it’s like to try to adjust to things when you get back home. We’re not gung ho army guys, we’re not superpatriots, we’re just kids who wanted to get money for college. I think a lot of people watching the movie can relate to us.
Grantland: How have your friends fared since coming home?
Fredianelli: It’s been hard for them. Really hard. Simply getting services is hard. The VA hospital is over two hours away. If you don’t have a car, like some of my friends, you’ve got to take a shuttle, and the shuttle service is infrequent and difficult. And they don’t cover your expenses if you end up at a local hospital. I only got blown up once; Bodi had multiple concussions. I don’t really suffer from the effects of it anymore like he does. Bodi still sleeps shitty and has migraines. I lost that after a year or two.
When you’re in the Army, there’s more support when you come home. You return to a base, you’re close to services, and your family, having lived on the base, has become a military family and is better equipped to deal with a returning soldier. For National Guardsmen who’ve fought overseas,3 you come home and you’re dropped right back into your old civilian life. The transition’s not easy.
According to Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey, Jr., every National Guard brigade has deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, with more than 300,000 Guardsmen sent into action. In a February speech, Casey quoted studies revealing that it takes a minimum of 24 to 36 months to recover from combat deployment.
Grantland: What’s next for you?
Fredianelli: I’ve got one more semester at Finlandia, and then I’m gonna start school at the Art Institute of Chicago. It’ll be strange to leave home again, but I’m really excited about being down there. And this fall we’ll keep sharing the movie with people. The more I talk about it, the more I make sense of my experience.
A funny thing happened not too long ago. I hung out with Ashley again one night, and we were actually talking like normal people. I’d never really talked to her about Afghanistan. When we were living together, I was always talking about it to everyone, and it’s easy to repeat the same stories without really thinking about them. But that night, we got into it really deeply. I shared all kinds of stories with her. And she told me a lot of stories she’d never told me about things she’d been through while I was overseas. And then, when she hugged me, I thought to myself, “Why couldn’t I have just talked to her like this before, when we were still together?”
Davy Rothbart is the creator of Found magazine, editor of the Found books, author of the story collection The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas, and a frequent contributor to public radio’s This American Life. He’s also the founder of an annual hiking trip for inner-city kids called Washington II Washington.
Previously from Davy Rothbart:
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