In my mind, few films have told the complete soldier's story from enlistment to deployment, then past the homecoming parades and into the difficult process of returning to civilian life. But Heather Courtney's fantastic documentary Where Soldiers Come From does just that as it follows three young men from Michigan's upper peninsula who enlist in the National Guard together, are sent to Afghanistan, and must deal with the repercussions of their experience when they return home. In many ways, Where Soldiers Come From is the Hoop Dreams of soldier films.
Watch the trailer for Where Soldiers Come From below.
Where Soldiers Come From mostly focuses on Dom, Cole and Bodi, childhood friends who joined the Guard in their early twenties in order to make extra money, help with tuition and give their life some direction (patriotism or support for foreign policy isn't part of the decision). The film follows them over four years through training, deployment in Afghanistan with a bomb disposal unit, and through the difficult process of reintegration back in Michigan.
But the film also spends considerable time with the boys' parents, friends and girlfriends as they ride a cruel emotional rollercoaster -- sending their boys into danger for a dubious cause, finding brief respites from dread through Skype and IM and joyfully welcoming the trio back home, only to find that the fresh-faced boys they once knew are suffering from invisible wounds and burdens that have changed them forever.
Where Soldiers Come From should be required viewing for any young person considering joining the military, and really everyone else, whether you support our current wars or not. But potential recruits should watch the film and really ponder if it is worth the relatively small amount of money soldiers are paid for a possible lifetime of repercussions, even if they aren't physically disfigured. They should be cognizant of the strain it will put on family members and relationships, and that it's possible that all of their hardships could be in service of a war that makes no sense.
By providing a comprehensive, unromanticized look at life before, during, and after deployment, Where Soldiers Come From addresses a subject that is very important to me. For several years, I've been troubled by what I see as America's unhealthy worship and mythologizing of soldiers, where every soldier is considered a patriotic hero whose actions and motivations are beyond reproach. Many see soldier worship as a needed correction to the idea that soldiers returning to the U.S. from Vietnam were universally greeted with torrents of spit and "Baby killer!" chants from a naïve, unpatriotic anti-war left. While the existence of spat-upon Vietnam veterans appears to be a myth in itself, the legend has taken hold and burrowed deep into the American psyche.
Since Vietnam, politicians from both parties (but especially republicans) have purposefully conflated "support/worship the soldiers no matter what" with "support the war no matter what," causing many to keep their opposition to a war quiet lest they be painted as being unpatriotic soldier haters -- two things I've been accused of countless times. This makes it exceedingly difficult to end even the most unjust, wrong-headed, counterproductive wars, with republicans shouting "You hate the troops!" if anyone tries to reduce funding for the military or war, and democrats scared of being called "weak on defense."
Paradoxically, soldier worship also does few favors for soldiers. When soldiers return home, their elevation to near-demigod status makes them seem unapproachable and unrelatable when they're trying their best to reintegrate into normal life and hopefully be treated like everyone else. Call a soldier a hero and the first thing they'll probably tell you is that they aren't heroes, even if they've just won the Medal of Honor. Most would probably say that they were just doing their job, which is how many soldiers feel about their service. And upon returning home, soldiers must come to grips with what recruiters never told them: that their most difficult battles will most likely take place at home as they deal with the aftereffects of war and a government that's sometimes reluctant to deliver on its promises.
To find out more about Where Soldiers Come From and if it's playing at a theater near you, go here.