Dominic Fredianelli and Cole Smith returned to their homes on Michigan's Upper Peninsula after their tours in Afghanistan.
When Dominic Fredianelli joined the National Guard in 2005, he thought he was signing up for one weekend of training a month in exchange for a signing bonus and help with college tuition.
But in the new documentary Where Soldiers Come From, director Heather Courtney follows Fredianelli and his friends' path from carefree teens in small-town Michigan to soldiers facing battle in Afghanistan.
Courtney spent four years following three friends — Fredianelli, 24; Cole Smith, 24; and Matt "Bodi" Beaudoin, 23 — who deployed for Afghanistan in December 2008. She documented their families and the town the young soldiers came from; their introduction to combat and disillusionment with their mission; and the problems that surfaced once they returned home.
NPR's Neal Conan talks with Courtney and Fredianelli about the film.
On how the film changed dramatically a year into filming
Courtney: "It focuses on [Fredianelli, Smith and Beaudoin], but it really is a story about their whole group of friends and how they all are changed over this four-year period of time. And also it's about their families and their town because it's a very small community and a very close-knit community, and many people in that town were affected by this far-off war because their sons or husbands or brothers went off to war.
Spc. Dominic Fredianelli rests during a cache sweep in an Afghan village.
Spc. Dominic Fredianelli rests during a cache sweep in an Afghan village. Heather Courtney
"... I filmed them for over a year before we knew that they were going to be deployed. Being National Guard, you're not an active-duty soldier. You just meet once a month for training. So they were just normal teenagers, and then they got the orders to deploy. So what started out as a coming-of-age film about these kids — 19-year-old kids trying to figure out what to do next with their lives — turned into a story of them going off to war, and how they and all their family and friends and town are affected by it."
On how Fredianelli got more than he had bargained for when he enlisted
Fredianelli: "I had some family that was already in the National Guard, so it was a little bit more comforting to me, knowing that they were going to be in there too. My uncle is a sergeant in the unit I was going to be joining. And then just the money — that much money was a little bit more comforting coming from where I come from. My parents don't really make a lot of money. And the free college was quite enticing, as well.
"... I was a little bit naive about it and definitely immature about making a decision during wartime, but I think used the comfort of my friends joining along with me to block that out."
On learning he'd be deploying to Afghanistan
Fredianelli: "I went through ... a couple of panic attacks a couple of months before we left, just starting to think about the worst things that could happen, someone maybe not coming back or getting seriously injured. I didn't really think about the psychological problems until after I [had] seen the film, with how much we all had changed. But it was definitely hard starting to think that we were actually going to be going and how many of us were actually going and how affected the city was going to be.
Cole Smith, who served as a driver and gunner in convoys looking for roadside bombs in Afghanistan, greets crowds in his hometown of Hancock, Mich.
Cole Smith, who served as a driver and gunner in convoys looking for roadside bombs in Afghanistan, greets crowds in his hometown of Hancock, Mich. Heather Courtney
"We share, like, a little bit more different camaraderie than, you know, just the regular Army unit experiences, because we've all known each other. Me and my uncle is overseas with me, and seven of my best friends and, you know, people that work with my mom and people that work with my dad that are really close friends ... It was pretty crazy."
On what makes war especially hard on the National Guard
Courtney: "A very specific thing about National Guard veterans is that they come back to their communities, and they don't have a lot of the resources that people from active-duty military do, because they don't have a military base there. So when they're veterans, these National Guard soldiers are expected to just go back to their civilian life. And it's very difficult. And there needs to be more resources, I think, for these National Guardians.
"But what's different is they have each other. They have the friends that they went with. They're there with them and their families and their community, and that is a real support network."