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Sat September 10, 2011
Movie Interviews

Following 'Soldiers,' To The Battlefield And Back

Originally published on Sat September 10, 2011 11:45 am

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.




Interview Highlights

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."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host: This weekend a new documentary opened in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF VOICES)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DOMINIC FREDIANELLI: I'm Dominic Fredianelli. I'm age 20.

SIMON: You need a push, Dom?

FREDIANELLI: I'm pretty much known as Dom since I could remember.

SIMON: "Where Soldiers Come From," follows a group of young men from a small town in Michigan's woody and darkly beautiful Upper Peninsula. They sign up for the National Guard together. They wind up serving in Afghanistan together, and they come back home to places that they left to face true and unforeseen challenges.

The filmmaker is Heather Courtney. She joins us from the studios of KUT in Austin, Texas. Thanks so much for being with us.

HEATHER COURTNEY: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: You didn't set out to make a war story, did you?

COURTNEY: No, I did not. I set out to make a story about rural America because I'm also from the same town that the guys in the film are from. When I was there I read an article about the local National Guard so I went to one of their monthly trainings and that's where I met Dominic.

SIMON: Dominic Fredianelli, you mean.

COURTNEY: Yes.

SIMON: Let's bring into our conversation a couple of the young men that you follow in this film. First, the gentleman you mentioned, Dominic Fredianelli is in the studios of WBEZ in Chicago. Dominic, thank you for being with us.

FREDIANELLI: Thank you.

SIMON: And Matt Beaudoin joins us from the studios of WNMU there in the Upper Peninsula, Marquette, Michigan. Thanks very much for being with us.

MATT BEAUDOIN: Thank you also.

SIMON: You're known as Dom and Bodi.

FREDIANELLI: Yup.

BEAUDOIN: Yup.

SIMON: May we call you Dom and Bodi?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FREDIANELLI: Yeah.

BEAUDOIN: Yes, sir.

SIMON: Dom, in many ways the story begins with you. What made you and your friends decide to sign up for the National Guard?

FREDIANELLI: Well, I joined right after high school for a $20,000 signing bonus and free school within Michigan. The Michigan's schools offer tuition assistance if you join the Michigan National Guard. And we have a big base of friends and, you know, a lot of us weren't doing much; we were just hanging around the town. So I mean I recruited a couple and then we came back and we recruited a couple that would go together and a couple that would go together and it just, it started snowballing like that. So I was the godfather of it all...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FREDIANELLI: ...who started it.

SIMON: Bodi, and you decided to sign up for essentially the same reasons?

BEAUDOIN: Yeah. It was pretty much my brother AJ, who is my older brother. He did two tours in Iraq and my brother Mikey joined the Guard actually first before I did.

SIMON: Let me turn to the filmmaker, Heather Courtney, for a moment. Were there times as you went back and forth between Michigan and Afghanistan that you are in the unique position of knowing that both at home and then in foreign deployment. Were there times where your instincts were to say get out of here or to shout out to the world, protect these kids?

COURTNEY: Yeah. It was a very difficult position to be in because I had gotten to know them and I felt very close to them. And, you know, they were 20 or 21. I don't know. Dom, did you know I was worried about you?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FREDIANELLI: Yeah. I mean like a lot of times she had to leave for months at a time and left us in Afghanistan. I'm sure she heard stuff that has happened to us when she was in the states and then stuff happening at home.

COURTNEY: Yeah. That was the hardest actually, being in the U.S. when they were in Afghanistan and not knowing what was happening to them because they weren't allowed really to tell us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM")

DISPATCH: Following command wire. We'll call you if we need a dismount team at our location. Over.

SIMON: Bodi, let me turn to you for your part of the story. As we see in the film, you wind up doing some of the most dangerous work there us for U.S. servicemen and women in Afghanistan, and that's you become drivers and gunners who were looking for roadside bombs. You ran into some IEDs...

BEAUDOIN: Yeah.

SIMON: ...and tell us what that's like.

BEAUDOIN: Well, getting blown up is you get so filled with adrenaline that, you know, at first you really don't you don't feel anything, you just get a that, oh, here we go mode, you know, that lifesaving mode. So it's like anticipating getting punched in the face the whole time driving out there. And I mean that's our job. All of us knew on every mission that at any time, any of us had the possibility of getting blown up. So I think we did pretty well. I mean we found, the majority of the IEDs we found. I think we only got blown up like I think it was under 10 times and we found like 60 or 70 IEDs.

You know, for me what hurt me the most are RPGs, which is a rocket propelled grenade, more than the IEDs that hurt. Those are more scary.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM)

UNIDENTIFIED SOLIDER #1: Holy (bleep)

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #2: What?

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #1: Whoa. RPGs. Look out. Look out.

SIMON: Dom and Bodi, you're both, based on the evidence of the film, very good soldiers. But it sounds from the interviews even while you were there that you began to have doubts about your mission.

FREDIANELLI: Yeah. I mean me and Bodi have always really connected. We were always talking about like conspiracy theories and just like why are we here? What's going on? There's so many questions and there's so little answers whole you're over there, so.

BEAUDOIN: Yeah.

SIMON: Bodi, at one point in the film you say, you're serving in Afghanistan taught you to hate people - and you list them.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: You list quite a few groups. And I wonder what is it like to see yourself saying that now.

BEAUDOIN: At the time I was blown up I think around seven or eight times and I wasn't able to go out anymore with the guys, which really, really upset me. I always thought this was, you know, I don't want them to go out with me. I worry, I would just worry about them. So I was so mad at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM)

BEAUDOIN: I've learned to hate the people of Afghanistan and the country of Afghanistan. That's true. I hate everybody here. I hate everything about it. I hate the way they smell, the way they look, the way they talk, the way they dress, the way they think. I don't like them. I'm a racist American now because of this war and that is a true statement.

I obviously don't feel that way anymore. I look back at that and I can understand why I said that. You know, I was so jaded because of how many times that I was, that I got blown up.

SIMON: Well, help us understand that, because it's the determination of the army doctors that you were in so many explosions there's some effect.

BEAUDOIN: Yeah. That is...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BEAUDOIN: ...kind of on me also. I never wanted to not stop going out even though I got blown up so many times, so I would kind of bend the truth. Tell them that, you know, I feel fine, I feel fine, let me keep going out. And they have what's called a TBI test which is traumatic brain injury test - and I kind of cheated and memorized it. And there's is saying that they ask you a few words and you have to repeat them. And the few words are elbow, apple, carpet, saddle, bubble. And I will always remember that saying. And 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.

SIMON: Yeah. May I ask what the latest medical information is about you?

BEAUDOIN: I have a severe case of TBI and PTSD. TBI is traumatic brain injury and PTSD is post-traumatic stress disorder. I'm 90 percent disabled. I'm still able to work and stuff. You know, I get migraines and I still have sleep problems and stuff like that. But I take it day by day, you know?

SIMON: Yeah.

BEAUDOIN: So and just see where it goes from here and whatever comes up it's just something I have to deal with.

SIMON: Dominic?

FREDIANELLI: Yup.

SIMON: What's life like for you now?

FREDIANELLI: It was good for maybe two weeks. And then stuff - I don't know, you start trying to embed yourself back into a college life and you're worrying about money and you're not out on the road looking for bombs for 20 hours-plus a day and I mean it's just a complete change. And I like I was living with my girlfriend in our world just started clashing. But now like after a couple of years I'm starting to roll here.

BEAUDOIN: Yeah. Life isn't, you know, when you first come back it's - we went through this crazy experience together and then you come home and you see in the movie when they say, you know, dismissed, you're instantly back a civilian again. So it's like being this full-time soldier looking for bombs and then instantly thrown back into being a civilian and dealing with civilian problems, you know; bills and figuring out what you're going to do with your life. And this whole time you're just, you know, you're trying to adjust. A nice thing with our group is we're so close to each other that we rely on each other quite a bit. Especially like last winter if it wasn't for Dom many times I would have, you know, collapsed.

SIMON: May I ask what happened last winter?

BEAUDOIN: Me and Dominic, we were at a bar and there was this guy there and we ended up getting into having too many drinks, and we ended up talking about the war. And he ended up making a comment something of such as your war doesn't matter, your war is pointless, and I ended up freaking out and getting in a big fight with the guy. You know, beating him up pretty good and I ended up falling into Dom's arms and just bawling for hours because I just didn't know what to do. And if it wasn't for Dom being there I don't know what would've happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And that's Matt Beaudoin and his friend Dominic Fredianelli, two the young men featured in the film "Where Soldiers Come From." It opens in New York this weekend. Our thanks to them and to the filmmaker, Heather Courtney. You could see clips from the film on our website, npr.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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