By Christine Graf
Mount Olive independent filmmaker Jack Thomas Smith travelled to North Carolina in 2011 to shoot Infliction, a feature-length horror movie that he wrote, directed and produced. The movie opened in select theaters in 2014 and was later released on DVD by Virgil Films & Entertainment. Smith’s first film, Disorder, was screened at the Cannes Film Festival and was released on DVD by Universal in 2006.
While in North Carolina, Smith held open auditions for Infliction. It was there that he met his fiancé, California
native Mandy Del Rio. At the time, Del Rio, a social media and marketing consultant, had been living in North Carolina for just three days. Her eleven-year-old daughter, Luna, was an aspiring actress and had asked her mother to take her to the audition.
Although Del Rio pursued acting when she was younger, she had no intention of auditioning for Infliction. She changed her mind after Smith encouraged her to audition, and she ended up with a small role in the film.
According to Del Rio, she and Smith had an instant connection. After the two started dating, she began working alongside him on the movie.
“We immediately hit it off. It was love at first sight as cliché as that sounds,” she said. “And, I believed in the film so much. I loved the concept, and I wanted to help him in any way I could. He’s an indie filmmaker–that’s kind of an all hands on deck situation–so I basically became his assistant on the film. I learned so many things about production, preproduction, and post-production–everything that goes in to making a film. After film was shot, he and I completely built the social media marketing campaign.”
After completing Infliction, the couple moved to Mount Olive with Luna. Smith, a Pennsylvania native, attended high school in Sparta and has lived in the Mount Olive area since 1990. His daughter, Megan Cruz, is a 1994 graduate of Mount Olive High School and works with him at his production company, Fox Trail Productions, Inc.
“We have been inseparable since we started working on Infliction,” said Del Rio. “We have worked on commercials, music videos, PSA’s, lots of different film projects. I’ve basically been his right hand man through everything.”
According to Del Rio, one of the things she and Smith have in common is their deep respect for the United States military. Her father served in the Army and fought in Vietnam, and her grandfather was a career soldier who saw action in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Her other grandfather served in Korea, her uncle did three tours in Vietnam, and her brother served in the Army. Her family’s military service dates back to the war of 1812.
Smith also has several veterans in his family, and Del Rio described him as “extremely patriotic and pro military.” She said he was the one who came up with the idea for their latest project, a documentary series called War Heroes.
“He came to me one day and said, ‘I have this amazing idea of how we can give back using our skills and our talents and our expertise with filmmaking. What if we did a docuseries where we tell the story of an individual soldier so that we know who they are, their entire life story, their family? Basically they will be the stars of each episode.’”
She loved the idea, and so did Glenn Nevola. Nevola is one of Smith’s best friends and the primary investor for War Heroes.
“He’s our third executive producer, and he’s the main investor. He’s part of the team but he’s not involved in day-to-day operations. That’s Jack and I. We’re boots on the ground,” said Del Rio.
Former Army Ranger and private security contractor Kris Paronto was chosen as the host of War Heroes. Paronto was part of the CIA annex security team stationed in Benghazi at the time of the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound. The 2016 movie 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi tells the story of what happened that day. Actor Pablo Schreiber portrays Paronto in the movie.
When Del Rio and Smith were brainstorming about potential hosts for the series, it was Del Rio who suggested they consider Paronto. At the time, she was following him on the social media platform Instagram.
“To be the host of something like this, a person has to be engaging. They have to have a gift of connecting with people on a real level. Through his Instagram, I thought, ‘This guy has something,’” she said. “So, Jack reached out to his agent, and he wanted to do it. He was really interested.”
For the pilot episode of War Heroes, Del Rio and Smith chose to tell the story of Sgt. Ryan E. Doltz from Mine Hill, New Jersey. They learned about the fallen soldier through a friend of Smith’s daughter, Megan.
Doltz died less than two months after arriving in Iraq. The twenty-six-year-old was killed on June 5, 2004, when the vehicle he was driving hit an IED (an improvised explosive device). He was part of Battery B, 3rd Battalion, 112th Field Artillery, New Jersey National Guard. Three other soldiers from his unit were killed that same day. They were the first New Jersey National Guard soldiers to be killed in combat since World War II. Doltz is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
According to Del Rio, Doltz’s mother, Cheryl, was hesitant when they first reached out to his family about the project. “When we first met with her, she wasn’t sure. She wanted to feel us out. But as soon as she started talking with us she knew she could trust us and that this was a good thing we were trying to do. We want to make sure people understand our intentions.”
Preproduction for the pilot episode began in 2017, and filming took place in the fall of 2018. Interviews were conducted with friends and family of Doltz, a graduate of Virginia Military Institute. Members of his battalion—men who were with him on the day he died—were also interviewed.
“We got to know and piece together the entire story of Sgt. Doltz through his family and friends,” said Del Rio. “You can learn a lot about someone’s character by the people they surround themselves with. The people this young man surrounded himself with are amazing people themselves.”
During filming, Paronto formed a special bond with the Doltz family. Doltz is survived by parents, Cheryl and Raymond, and siblings, Anne and Gregory.
“The way he has connected with this family is just amazingly special,” said Del Rio. “He was completely wonderful. He still stays in touch with the family. He’s been amazing with them. He calls Cheryl Mama Doltz.”
The forty-minute pilot episode has been completed, and it premiered to sold-out crowds earlier this year in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Succasunna, New Jersey. Proceeds from the screenings were donated to Paronto’s 14th Hour Foundation and the Sgt. Ryan E. Doltz Memorial Foundation.
Del Rio and Smith are hoping the series will be picked up by a network. Once this happens, they can begin filming new episodes.
“We have a producer rep who is shopping it around to networks,” said Del Rio. “To be honest with you, a couple of networks have reached out to us about it. One of the channels that reached out to us does a lot of documentaries.”
She said the series would be a perfect fit for any network that has a “documentary-friendly audience.” As examples, she mentioned A&E and the History Channel.
Filming new episodes will require an entire crew and a significant budget. It is for that reason that filming of additional episodes cannot take place until the series has the backing of a network.
Once this happens, Del Rio and Smith will commit themselves full time to the project. Currently, they both work as freelance media and marketing consultants, and Smith has several screenplays he is working on. They also produce commercials, public service announcements, music videos, and other projects through Fox Trail Productions.
They have many ideas for future episodes of War Heroes, and not all episodes will be about fallen soldiers. The series will not be exclusive to New Jersey and will tell the stories of servicemen and women from all over the United States.
Del Rio said she and Smith are anxiously awaiting the day they can devote themselves full-time to War Heroes.
“We’re just hoping it’s sooner than later. We’re just so anxious to start telling more stories. It’s our passion, so it’s easy to want to focus mainly on that. But as much as it’s been rewarding, it’s also been painful and heartbreaking. There are just so many emotions going.”
Although she never met Doltz, Del Rio said working on the pilot episode made her feel as if she did. As a result, she has found herself mourning his loss.
“I felt like I got to know him through his family and friends” she said. “I never met him, but I miss him.”
To view the trailer for War Heroes, visit warheroestv.com.