Heather Courtney's thoughtful documentary follows three young men as they make their way to war, a journey that, as the title has it, has as much to do with where they're from as where they go.
"Right now, I think all of us just feel stuck. Everyone's striving to, like, find something, but it's hard to do that sometimes." Dom Fredianelli and his buddies from forever, Cole Smith and Bodi Meaudoin, live in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and as Where Soldiers Come From, they're deep in snow.
"I joined the National Guard just for the money," says 20-year-old Dom, imagining the once a month obligation wouldn't be so taxing. His friends joined too. For Bodi, the decision is functional: “I said, ‘Fuck it,’ it pays for my schooling,” he says. He has a father and other relatives in the military, so he feels like he might know what to expect. When he’s done with it, he goes on, “I want to be a cop like my old man. That’s all you hear from small towns, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to get out.’” But Bodi likes it here, and wants to stay.
Cole, on the other hand, thinks leaving would be fine: "I've lived here my whole life," he says, "I'm ready for a change." And so he joined the Guard, at least in part because Dom did. "I've pretty much known Dom since I can remember," he says. "Since kindergarten." He's got a U.S. flag on the wall of his bedroom. "It could happen any time," he says.
"It" is their deployment. And it's not long after the start of Where Soldiers Come From that they're ordered to active duty, as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2008. Opening in select theaters 9 September and airing on POV 11 November, Heather Courtney's thoughtful documentary follows the threesome as they make their way to war, a journey that, as the title has it, has as much to do with where they're from as where they go.
One part of where they come from is comprised of their families. Cole's sister Lindsay is "pissed that they joined. It's a bad time to join," she goes on, "We've got such a dumbass in office." Lindsay's frustration is only the most vocal. Her and Cole's mom, Mary, is a longtime waitress, and she and the kids are well aware of how economics shape life decisions. “Ever see that movie, Deer Hunter,” Mary asks. “That reminds me so much of this group, maybe because they’re so close-knit. If something happens to one of them, it will be so devastating to the group, you know.” when he’s gone, she and her husband, along with Lindsay, stay in touch with him as best they can, by email and video.
Throughout this process, Where Soldiers Come From cuts between the boys in Afghanistan and the families back home, the desert and snow, the armored vehicles and a Zamboni at the local hockey rink. Lindsay and Mary work at the diner and imagine a future: "I think Cole will make a good daddy and a good husband," they agree.
In the meantime, life goes on and it doesn’t. Dom’s girlfriend Ashley describes their adjustments, worries when they’re on a mission and she might not hear from him for a couple of days. At Salerno, Dom worries about what he’s doing: “What is the point of all this?” he asks, “Who am I fighting a war for? I can’t stop thinking about my friends, I can’t imagine what it would be like if one of them or me doesn’t come back. It’s putting a big burden on our shoulders if one of them doesn’t come home safe.” The burden is exacerbated, as explosions, injuries, and frustrations exact different tolls, erode confidence, raise questions. Cole can’t keep food down, Dom, an artist all his life, has trouble drawing, and Bodi declares he hates everyone in Afghanistan, thanking “the United States Army” for making him a racist.
The scenes in Afghanistan include diary-style self-reflections, shots of the men at work (helmeted and sun-glassed, the camera tilted up at their grim jawlines as they drive), and discussions among the three. The job is hard. As Bodi says, looking for IEDs is “like anticipating getting punched in the face,” for hours at a time.
By the time they return home, the dynamic has changed, among them, with their families, and with the filmmaking process. Dom is briefly impatient with “answering questions,” Cole has troubles having his tuition paid (the VA loses his paperwork), and Bodi learns he has TBI, that his brain looks like he’s “been playing professional football for 20 years.” The doctors can’t predict what will happen, whether he’ll be fine decades from now or he’ll “be drooling.”
All this disruption, and no clear end to it. Where Soldiers Come From is less interested in finding blame than in making effects of war visible. And whether or not you're from the same sort of place as these soldiers, you can see how the boys are made by this place, how they mean to hold on to it and also have to let it go.