Why we must see PBS ‘Where Soldiers Come From’

Young men who have been friends since childhood in northern Michigan wind up going to Afghanistan with the U.S. Army in the PBS documentary Where Soldiers Come From. Photo by Heather Courtney, courtesy of PBS-POV.Marking Veterans Day 2011, the PBS network’s POV documentary series is airing the deeply moving documentary Where Soldiers Come From—on Wednesday November 10, the evening before Veterans Day. (The PBS-POV website has more information about the film, including local showtimes.)

Why should we see this troubling documentary?

Where Soldiers Come From vividly brings to life the hard lessons we are learning, as a nation, about the legacy of a decade at war. The documentary follows a group of young friends, and their families, from the rural Midwest near Michigan’s Lake Superior. The filmmakers follow these young men for four years—into the National Guard, into Afghanistan, then back home where they struggle with the aftermath of war and invisible injuries to their brains from IED explosions.

We know these stories represent the experiences of thousands upon thousands of families. One of the most disturbing national reports, this autumn, is Pew’s War and Sacrifice in the Post-9/11 Era. Pew found that half of post-9/11 veterans “feel strains in family relations,” and “feel irritable or angry,” and “have problems re-entering civilian life.” More than a third say they suffer from post traumatic stress.

In the first hour of this documentary, we are won over by these good-looking, promising young guys. One is a talented artist. All of them seem to hold great potential. Then, in Afghanistan, they spend month after month on patrols to find and deactivate IEDs. They travel in heavily armored vehicles and are blown up repeatedly. None of them comes home with a visible wound. But, in the final half hour of the film, the trauma in their lives is obvious.

One of the friends is shown wandering along an icy Great Lakes shoreline with his friends. He says, “It’s tough to try to tell people that I’m now an anti-social nut case who doesn’t want to go anywhwere. You don’t want people to know that. You want to try to figure out why you’re like that …” He looks at his friends and admits, “We don’t even talk about it with each other.”

At ReadTheSpirit, we are not alone in drawing these kinds of conclusions about the film. Our friends Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat at the Spirituality & Practice website were so angry after watching the film that their review of Where Soldiers Come From concludes, “Given the bloated budgets of the military, it is a crime to see the cruel and inhumane treatment of these soldiers after they return from hell.”

Is the movie a downer that’s tough to watch?

Director Heather Courtney films the portion of the documentary Where Soldiers Come From that occurs in Afghanistan. Photo by Bryan Quello, courtesy of PBS-POV.If you are sensitive to R-rated language, you should know that the film is peppered with the “f” word. Truly, this film is a sharp-edged call to action on behalf of veterans. Now that our nation has fought these wars, we all need to demand greater assistance for our neighbors who agreed to serve in these campaigns.

But, there’s also something compelling about this story. If you enjoy slice-of-life buddy movies like “Clerks” or “Diner,” then you’ll appreciate this slice of real life. As the documentary opens, we see these guys scouting locations for their artist friend to spray paint graffiti. We see them casually talking about the good deal they’ve found in joining the National Guard. We watch them enjoying a training run in the National Guard as if they are facing hostlile outposts in Iraq or Afghanistan. Once they are in Afghanistan, the filmmakers show them both at their U.S. Army base and on patrol. Then, we come home with them and watch these guys try to resume everyday life.

You’ll get to know several of them by name and you’ll get to know their families. You’re likely to discover scenes that are a lot like your own life. And, when that happens, then Where Soldiers Come From has accomplished its mission. No longer are polling reports about the dire need for assistance among veterans’ families just impersonal facts on a page.

These are our neighbors. We can’t forget what we, as a nation, have done to them.

Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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