May 23, 2014

The trailer for Mike and Carlos Boettcher’s new movie “The Hornet’s Nest” that opens in theaters nationwide today says right up front the film is “Not based on a true story.” Then a second message appears on the screen, “This is the true story.”

“The Hornet’s Nest” is a movie with no actors. The shooting, the fear, the loneliness, the bleeding, the dying is all real. “The Hornet’s Nest” is the product of two journalists, a father and a son who risked their lives and spent their own money to tell the stories of soldiers and Marines and their families involved in America’s longest wars.

Mike Boettcher is one of network television’s most experienced war correspondents. In 1985, he was kidnapped and threatened with execution in El Salvador. He survived a roadside bombing in Baghdad. He covered the U.S. Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon and the fighting in Kosovo. He has reported for NBC, CNN and ABC.

Boettcher was in Afghanistan in 2002 when the Taliban fell. He moved with American soldiers to Iraq and, for the last decade, he has been recording the story of the troops in the field. Boettcher says no correspondent has spent more time in Afghanistan. Over a six-year span, he devoted a total of two and a half years on the battlefields.

In 2008, I bumped into Mike at a journalism convention at Las Vegas. As we were catching up, he surprised me with the news that he was leaving NBC News. He told me he was heading to Iraq and then Afghanistan and he intended to stay there 15 months.

He planned to assign himself to witness and document the unfolding wars and he would pay the expenses out of his own pocket. He cashed in his 401(k). He had no network promising to air his work. There certainly was no Hollywood film company asking him to shoot a movie about the awful reality of war.

He had another surprise. He said he intended to bring his son Carlos with him. Carlos was surprised, too.

Mike Boettcher, left, and his son, Carlos Boettcher, embedding with the 101st Airborne in Afghanistan. (Chaplain Justin Roberts)

“It was at the height of violence in Iraq,” Carlos told me. “He said he had done this kind of work, covering wars his whole life. And I said I would miss him. He said ‘Carlos, do you want to join me?’”

“He and I had a strained relationship,” Mike said. “The job took me away from him for years. I saw this as an opportunity to reconnect with my son.”

Carlos Boettcher was not a journalist. He was finishing a college degree studying counter terrorism and the drug war. He grew up in a household where his father covered wars and his mother, Chris Chavez, was a CBS producer.

“’Pop, I want to go with you,’” Carlos said. “I loved shooting cameras and so I thought maybe I could be a cameraman for my father.”

For the next decade, the father-and-son team would embed in war zones, occasionally filing stories for ABC News and for a self-financed and short-lived website.

“All of my background in journalism was the crash course I had with my father the first year in Baghdad. He taught me the basics of writing scripts; we would go over the scripts as we filed for ABC World News. I felt like I was learning things at a 10 times faster pace while being under gunfire, and I had the best teacher.”

Soldiers of the 101st Airborne, 327th Infantry, in action during the dangerous Operation Strong Eagle III operation in 2011. (Mike Boettcher photo)

The Boettchers were always on the move embedding with every brigade of the 101st Airborne Division. As part of the 2011 troop “surge,” the 101st’s “No Slack” battalion (327th Infantry) was deployed to the Afghanistan and Pakistan border. The goal was to take out a key al-Qaida target, a warlord, in a 24- to 48-hour battle. “The Hornet’s Nest” shows how “Operation Strong Eagle III” stretched into nine bloody days of fighting. Six Americans died in that battle. The movie shows how rescue helicopters try time and again to airlift the injured but can’t because of the intense fighting. One chopper trying to make the rescue is itself shot down and crashes.

Mike and Carlos Boettcher risked their lives to tell the story that soldiers seldom tell anyone else but other soldiers.

“I’ve done my best to look through the smoke of war to illuminate the causes and cover the experiences of the men and women sent to fight and win,” Mike said. “While they fight and die thousands of miles away, we sit comfortably at home and sacrifice nothing. That’s why I had to be there, to capture their stories and be sure we all understand what they are enduring.”

“This is not a flag-waving story,” Mike said. “Part of the thing we had to do when we embed with a unit, is explain that we will tell the stories we see truthfully. And when you live with people under the conditions we did, you get to know these soldiers, you become friends with them. Sometimes, your life depends on them.”

“When you embed with a new outfit,” Carlos said, “it is like being the new kid in class every time. They don’t know you, they are suspicious of you. One of the biggest things, honestly, in gaining the trust of the soldier is surviving a gunfight with them. Once they see how you handle yourself, they give you some respect and that is when the stories begin.”

There were times, in the middle of firefights, when Mike didn’t know if his own son was dead or alive. “I remember saying to myself: ‘You selfish son of a bitch. Did you get your son killed?’”

Carlos said he learned to trust his father’s survival skills. “My father and I have been on other sides of the hills — RPGs, AKs going off. I didn’t know if he was alive or dead but I had faith he was — he has survived so much in his life. He is probably going to slip on a banana peel at age 75. That’s the way he will go.”

The 101st Airborne soldiers who have screened the film say it tells their raw story in ways they cannot. Colonel J.B. Vowell, the commander of the “No Slack” battalion featured in “The Hornet’s Nest” told the Ft. Campbell Courier, “This film is very real, and it represents the efforts, the honor, the trust and the bond of brotherhood that you have for each other.” And Vowell said, “If you had friends or relatives that [have deployed], you will gain an immediate, visceral appreciation for what they did.”

“American politicians say we are a country at war. But really, the nation is not at war. The Army, the Marines, the Navy and Airmen are at war,” Mike told me. He said it is important for the public to see the scene in “The Hornet’s Nest” where a 600-pound roadside bomb explodes, killing children. American soldiers rush to the aid of the injured as they have done time after time when there were no cameras rolling on them.

Capturing the story

The Boettcher team used mainly “pro-consumer” JVC 100 HD cameras to capture the stories. The gear needed to be rugged enough to survive the tour, but it had to be light enough to pack and not so valuable that it would become a target. “Make no mistake — I am targeted by the Taliban when I am in Afghanistan,” Mike said.

“We used Go-Pros before anybody knew what they were,” Carlos said. “We mounted them on our helmets and would just run them for three hours.”

They used DSLR cameras to capture the high-end beauty shots they needed. “We used the Canon 5D Mark II. It shoots beautiful images but it is a pig to work with in a firefight. It is so easy to do something wrong with a DSLR.” They carried a portable satellite transmit and receiving dish and a satellite phone.

The movie is loaded with close-up sound. “We used a lot of Sony Wireless microphones,” Carlos said. “I would just wire up an officer and an NCO (non-commissioned officer.) The officer would talk to the villagers and the NCO would be the person you would want to be next to in battle. We used four channels of audio; two wireless channels and shotgun microphones off the camera. Sound for me is the most important thing in the film and the most important thing in day-to-day journalism. If I am filling out a piece for ABC World News, I would much rather have the subject be completely out of focus and have great sound than have it the other way around.”

The Legacy

In the last few weeks, Mike Boettcher has made a car tour of the country promoting the film, reconnecting with soldiers he met in Afghanistan and Iraq and connecting with the families of those soldiers he watched die. He landed a job teaching at the University of Oklahoma, where journalism students maintain a blog about war coverage. Carlos is now a producer for ABC News.

Mike Boettcher carries his JVC HD 100 camera through Afghanistan. (Carlos Boettcher photo)

Mike said he started recording what would become “The Hornet’s Nest” as a way of honoring Americans who risk their lives in battle.

“We only do this to make a difference. That is why we constantly keep going back, keep fighting, and keep trying to tell these stories. Otherwise,” Boettcher said, “my life has been for nothing. You know something? It has been for something. It has.”

Carlos sees the work through a different lens. “Iraq and Afghanistan were and are generationally defining wars — but in a different way from Vietnam decades ago. There was not the same fear, we don’t have a draft. For people of my generation, the Iraq war was the first time they protested, got into anything political.”

After 9/11, he said, “a lot of people enlisted. These wars have left a deep and abiding mark on millennials, people defined by touch-screens and Twitter. But this film tells what else happened. Without it, the country would miss first-hand insight into what the soldiers were going through. People just don’t realize that the war in Afghanistan was going on and that people, real people, are fighting and dying out there. Our movie is a clear voice for many soldiers.”


For more information on the film, see the movie’s website and Facebook page.

Other video and interviews are available here as well.

These are the military units that the Boettcher’s embedded with:
1st Brigade, 2nd Battalion, 101st ABN
3rd Brigade, “Rakkasan”, 101st ABN
4th Brigade, Currahee, 101st ABN
2nd Battalion, 8th Marines

Wynonna Judd sings theme song for “The Hornet’s Nest:”

ABC US News | ABC International News

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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