Filmmaker Heather Courtney didn't set out to make a war story. "I set out to make a story about rural America," she says. Her new documentary, Where Soldiers Come From, is both war story and small-town homecoming saga; it follows a group of young men who sign up for the National Guard, serve in Afghanistan, and then return home to their families in Michigan's woody Upper Peninsula.
Courtney joins NPR's Scott Simon to discuss the documentary, along with two of the young soldiers featured in the film, Dominic "Dom" Fredianelli and Matt "Bodi" Beaudoin.
On joining the National Guard:
Fredianelli: "I joined right after high school for a $20,000 signing bonus and free school within Michigan. ... We have a big base of friends and a lot of us weren't doing much; we were just hanging around the town. So I recruited a couple [of friends] and then we came back and we recruited a couple [more] ... and it started snowballing like that. I was the godfather of it all who started it."
Beaudoin: "Like Dom said, it was just so easy to go up to the Guard unit because we know everybody up there. There's like 10 to 12 of us that all graduated so close to each other that it was a very easy choice for us to make."
On what it's like to search for roadside bombs:
Beaudoin: "You get so filled with adrenaline that at first you don't even feel anything. You just get in that 'Here we go' mode, that lifesaving mode. It's like anticipating getting punched in the face the whole time you're driving out there. That's our job. All of us knew ... at any time, any of us had the possibility of getting blown up."
On questioning the mission:
Fredianelli: "[Beaudoin and I] were always talking about conspiracy theories ... Why are we here? What's going on? There are so many questions and so little answers while you're over there."
On his assertion in the film that serving in Afghanistan taught him "to hate people":
Beaudoin: "I was so mad at the time. I obviously don't feel that way anymore. ... It was a crazy time in all of our lives, and I was so jaded because of how many times that I got blown up that I hated everything about that place. I don't regret what I said because at the time that's how I felt. ... What I love about the film [is that] Heather wasn't afraid to put the times like that into the film, because that's as real as it gets."
Beaudoin has been diagnosed with severe traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. He says he fooled the military into letting him continue to go out on missions:
Beaudoin: "I would kind of bend the truth — tell them, 'I feel fine, I feel fine, let me keep going out.' They have what's called a TBI test — a traumatic brain injury test — and I kind of cheated and memorized it. ... I could have sat out way earlier on the explosions, but I didn't want to because I wanted to go out with my boys. I'd rather get me blown up than my buddies."
On what it was like to come home to Hancock, Mich.:
Beaudoin: "It was quite an amazing feeling ... seeing a lot of the old vets come out and salute us as we're driving by, for me, that was a big emotional thing."
Fredianelli: "It was good for maybe two weeks. ... You're worrying about money, you're not out on the road looking for bombs for 20 hours plus a day. It's just a complete change. I was living with my girlfriend and our worlds just started clashing."
Beaudoin: "We went through this crazy experience together and then you come home ... instantly going back to being a civilian dealing with civilian problems: you know, bills and figuring out what you're going to do with your life. ... A nice thing with our group is we're so close with each other that we rely on each other quite a bit."
On what she hopes people will take away from the film:
Courtney: "Many Americans, whatever their politics or feelings about the war, are very far removed from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars because they don't know anyone personally who has gone there as a soldier. What I hope my film will do is introduce them so that you really get to know them as people and not as soldiers or former soldiers — but as people."