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.
"... 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.
"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."
NEAL CONAN, host: Three years ago, Dominic Fredianelli was a college student in Michigan's Upper Peninsula with a knack for graffiti art, looking for some direction in his life.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM")
DOMINIC FREDIANELLI: I joined the National Guard just for the money and the fact that it's only one weekend per month. I basically just asked, like, all my friends if they were interested in making money. Now there's like eight or nine, almost 10 of us now.
CONAN: Filmmaker Heather Courtney spent two years following Dominic and his friends, the families and towns they came from, their nine-month tour scouring the roads of Afghanistan for IEDs and what happened after they returned home. Dominic will join us in a few minutes.
If you served in the National Guard, how did deployment change your life? 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
We begin here in Studio 3A with Heather Courtney, director and producer of "Where Soldiers Come From," which premieres tonight on PBS as part of the "POV" series. And thanks very much for coming in.
HEATHER COURTNEY: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And you read about the Michigan National Guard unit in a local newspaper there on the UP, the Upper Peninsula.
COURTNEY: Yeah. And actually, I followed them for four years, so it was a very long journey. But I read about them in a local paper because I'm actually from there, same town, and I went back to my hometown to tell a story about rural America because I wanted to tell a story that was a little more universal and complex and kind of countered a lot of stereotypes they see in mainstream film and television. And so I read about the local National Guard when I was looking for people to talk to and stories to do. And I went to their monthly training, and that's where I met Dominic for the first time.
CONAN: And Dominic - well, he's - there are many characters in your film, but in some ways he is the central character.
COURTNEY: Yeah. He's - he is. I mean, the film is very much about friendship as well. So he and Cole, another main person in the film, and then Bodi as well. It focuses on the three of them, 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.
CONAN: And in small town America, we sometimes see or hear about the youth trying to leave. All these guys and their girlfriends, their town was their life.
COURTNEY: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And, actually, it's a big part of the film is the town, and actually their life as just normal teenagers. 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. And then - 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.
CONAN: Was it difficult to get permission to go along with them?
COURTNEY: No. I've been filming them for quite a while, for, like I said, a year and a half - well, almost two years by the time they left for Afghanistan. So I'd been filming their monthly trainings quite a bit. And that's - because I've been doing that, it wasn't that difficult to then get permission to embed with them, just as any journalist can embed with a unit in Afghanistan.
CONAN: And they were there for nine months. How long were you there?
COURTNEY: I was there a total of five months out of the nine months. I went for - on three different trips at the beginning. I went for two months and halfway through the deployment, and then again at the end for the last month and a half.
CONAN: And there is, of course, change. In fact, there's a very moving moment toward the end of the film where Dominic comes back and paints a mural with his spray cans on the side of a big wall. And the message of it is change.
CONAN: Every kid of 19 or 20 changes. These kids change more than most.
COURTNEY: Yeah. And I was very struck by that. In the editing process, when I looked at interviews from the very beginning and compared them to the interviews I did at the end, they really did change quite a bit. And you could see it just in their faces, the loss of innocence.
CONAN: Well, as we mentioned, Dominic, Dom, Fredianelli is with us. He joins us on the phone. Nice to have you with us today.
FREDIANELLI: Thank you.
CONAN: And he's there in Hancock, Michigan and - up in the Upper Peninsula. And I bet it's getting cold.
FREDIANELLI: Yep. Snowfall, for the first time, yesterday.
CONAN: How many inches?
FREDIANELLI: I think five.
CONAN: I wanted to ask you, it sounds from that clip that we played just a moment ago that it was almost a casual decision to join the National Guard.
FREDIANELLI: For the most part. I mean, 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 quiet enticing, as well.
CONAN: Sure. But the United States had been involved in two wars for some time by then, you had to know there was a possibility you'd be going.
FREDIANELLI: I definitely knew. I was a little bit naive about it and definitely immature about making a decision during war time. But I think used the comfort of my friends joining along with me to kind of - to block that out.
CONAN: And then there was the moment where you realized you are going to go, and the orders are given. There had to have been - in a way, you were the ringleader. You brought in some of your friends to go with you. You had to be really worried.
FREDIANELLI: Yeah. I went through quite a few a little bit of 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 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.
CONAN: There is a curious thing about the youth of a town going away to serve in the same unit in a war. I don't know if you've read that much history, but there were whole units recruited from towns or neighborhoods in World War I that would go over the top at one of those battles and literally the - a generation from that town would be wiped out.
FREDIANELLI: Yeah, definitely. I do read a lot about that kind of situations and, you know, Vietnam was kind of just everyone went and no one really knew each other and - but that 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 and it's - it was pretty crazy.
CONAN: So it meant a lot to have your friends and family around you.
CONAN: There's a moment in the film where you realized there's likely a back story. You guys are combat engineers. You're driving big armored trucks down the roads, looking for IEDs. Those are roadside bombs that most other people are trying to avoid. Nevertheless, there's one that's discovered in the field of a particular farmer, and he is arrested. And this is a clip from the movie where you realized that there's a back story to those who plant those bombs as well.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM")
FREDIANELLI: Supposedly, the landowner that owned the land is going to jail. Like, I don't look at it as I put a Taliban in jail. If he was even Taliban or not, I don't even know. I look at it as, like, I affected that guy's life for the rest of his life. Everyone around him is going to be affected by it and then, at the same time, I found a cache. And that IED will never explode, so I also affected people in that way. So it goes both ways for a lot of things. I mean, these people farm and take care of their families.
CONAN: There's - a minute after that, you say a lot of people get mad after they get blown up and wants some revenge. You had been blown up and say all you did after that was wonder. What did you wonder about?
FREDIANELLI: I just started thinking, more or less like a human, and why they were doing what they were doing, why I was doing what I was doing. And I guess I just started really thinking about compassion and stuff like that, and what war actually is so, you know, I don't know. It was a confusing time, and I'm just trying to figure out an answer of why we were actually there.
CONAN: Heather Courtney?
COURTNEY: Yeah. And there's also just - that clip continues and he says, you know, think about it. If someone came to your house in the U.S. and threatened to kill your family and your children and...
CONAN: If you didn't violate them.
COURTNEY: ...if you didn't shoot at somebody, what would you do as well if you put yourself on those shoes?
CONAN: We're talking about a new film that debuts tonight. It's the POV series called "Where Soldiers Come From." 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd like to talk with you if you served in the National Guard and how deployment changed your life. Eddie is on the line. Eddie, calling us from Portland.
EDDIE: Hello. Thank you for the show. Great show you got going on today.
CONAN: Thank you.
EDDIE: I deployed to - with Oregon National Guard overseas in '04, '05 and came back and - I used to be a pretty good student, a couple of different universities. And I had big problems with concentration and memory, and that - my grades really suffered for that and - not only that, but it was really easy for me to categorize everybody that I met as either competent or incompetent. And I had anger issues. And twice I would jump out - twice I jumped out of my vehicle on a busy street and went to the car in front of me to go beat them up. Fortunately, the individual kind of pulled away from me, but I have big issues with anger. That's my number one thing when I first came back.
CONAN: Dom Fredianelli, you had some of those issues too.
FREDIANELLI: Yeah. I mean, like, I'm in and out of school as well. I definitely have a concentration issue, just as the same as he said. And I guess the anger is - a lot of it is generated with us anyways as these people, I don't understand, are very ignorant towards the veterans and wars and stuff like that. I mean, me and Bodi got in a few confrontations in the bars and stuff, and, you know, just not thinking straight, and you just get really mad and angry with people that aren't – they're not being disrespectful, but they just - they kind of just don't know, and it kind of makes you mad because all at the same time, you don't really know either, so it's - you're trying to justify what you're thinking.
CONAN: Your friend Bodi seemed to have more trouble. He, at one point, is pulled out of combat because of the number of concussions that he's had and seems to have more issues after he came back. How is he doing?
FREDIANELLI: He's doing well. I mean, he's taking it day by day. You know, it's been two years now, so it's kind of calmed down a little bit. But, I mean, he's still suffering from headaches and lack of sleep and a lot to do with traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder.
COURTNEY: Yeah. Traumatic brain injury is the new signature war wound, really, from the Afghan war. Because the vehicles are much better now, so they protect them from severe wounds but they still are exposed to repeated blasts, which are repeated concussions. And Bodi had to deal - deals a lot with the recurring symptoms of his traumatic brain injury, which he has sleeplessness and headaches and anger and irritability and lack of concentration.
CONAN: At one point, he says he's got the brain of somebody who played 20 years in the National Football League. So we're talking about "Where Soldiers Come From," tonight on PBS as part of the POV series. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Brian, Brian with us from Detroit.
BRIAN: Hi. I'm also originally from the U.P., and I think that one of the things that few people realize about people who come from such a small, you know, small, rural area is that there's a cycle that goes on for generations of people being stuck in the same town because they can't get out. And that there's really only two ways to do it. One is to go to college, and I think the other is through the military. And I really think that the, you know, the soldiers from the U.P., they come back, and there are some other few people who actually get out of their, you know, their hometown, and then those that stay are some of the most loyal people to their friends and their family and their towns. And they do the best for the community - much more so than anybody else from the area.
CONAN: Dom Fredianelli, do you feel...
BRIAN: And down in Detroit, we just got our first snowflakes of the year, so the U.P. is not the only place snowing right now.
CONAN: Wisconsin got some yesterday too. Dom Fredianelli, do you feel stuck there in Hancock?
FREDIANELLI: You get that comfort here, because it is your home, and it's so small and it is comforting because you know everyone, so it is easier to get stuck with things here. I mean, it's easy to get a job because you know so many people that, you know, are concerned and hiring because, you know, you've known them for 20 years. And it is easy to get stuck in - and sometimes hard to move to a city or something where you don't know as many people as you do in a hometown like this. So I definitely can relate to what he's saying, and I know a lot of people just aren't comfortable leaving. They just - they love it here, and they don't want to leave so...
CONAN: Heather Courtney, I suspect you went to college too.
COURTNEY: Yes, a very long time ago, actually. About 20 years ago. But I wanted to add, too, about 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 they - 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, and I think it's hard to leave that, too, as a veteran who's struggling.
CONAN: Let's get one last caller in. This is Pat. Pat with us from Dyersville in Iowa.
PAT: Yes, sir.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
PAT: I just wanted to add, I'm kind of a more traditional guardsman. I got back in after a regular army stint into the guard. And I went over, when I was 49, to Afghanistan with the 2nd of the 34th Infantry, Red Bulls, out of Iowa. The one thing I wanted to add about the community impact, there's a famous division, 116th Infantry, 29th Division, World War II landed at Omaha Beach, and they lost 34 young men in a matter of 20 minutes. They were the spearhead on that invasion, and they were literally mowed down. It was A Company, 116th Infantry.
And I'll second what Courtney says about getting home and not really having the support. You know, I had the support when I was over there, as far as the unit, whenever I need it. Now, I'm trying to get answers to questions regarding, you know, different things. And the unit's not there, and they're now trying to go through the VA. There's kind of a disconnect there, so it's difficult. It's not like going back to Fort Bragg or Fort Campbell or something.
CONAN: Pat, thanks very much for the story. Appreciate it. Good luck.
PAT: Thank you.
CONAN: And, Dom Fredianelli, thank you very much for your time today. You still painting?
FREDIANELLI: Yeah. I might have another gallery opening here at the end of winter so - at Michigan State University.
CONAN: Well, good luck with that. Thanks very much for being with us. And, Heather Courtney, good luck with the film.
COURTNEY: Thank you.
CONAN: Heather Courtney, director and producer of "Where Soldiers Come From," part of PBS' POV series. It starts to air tonight. She was with us here in Studio 3A. Guest host John Donvan will be here on Monday. Have a great weekend, everybody. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.