by Danny Marroquin
“I understand the large hearts of heroes,
The courage of present times and all times…
Agonies are one of my changes of garments,
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person”
Walt Whitman, “Heroes” (f/ Leaves of Grass)
There came a time when submitting the battlefield dispatches wasn’t enough.
Ponca City native and Emmy winning war correspondent of 30-plus years Mike Boettcher broke a contract with NBC when he started to get a nagging feeling. The nightly news, due to ratings demands from audiences not interested in Iraq or Afghanistan war news, were less willing to run soldier stories. The fan of WWII reporter Ernie Pyle grew frustrated that stories about the men in the field weren’t being told. “We are becoming disconnected from this war,” he says. So Boettcher went to ABC, whose executives agreed to run his reports and give him rights to the footage taken in Afghanistan. With his camera work he could cobble together something larger.
The result is a documentary called “The Hornet’s Nest.” It follows the No Slack Battalion of the 101st Airborne during May of 2011 as they pursue an important Taliban stronghold in Northeast Afghanistan along the Pakistan border to help clear room for an incoming, younger platoon and attempt to assassinate Taliban leader Qari Zia Rahman.
“The Hornet’s Nest” is composed of footage taken by Mike and his 26-year-old son Carlos Boettcher. Most of it is shaky, which the viewer will understand when they hear the bullets or see the RPG smoke trail racing toward the camera. We are taken inside the houses of locals, but, probably much like the soldiers, it’s hard to see where the bullets are coming from. The Soviets once called this enemy “ghosts.” The viewer of such a film should know that it was never the creator’s intention to make “Apocalypse Now.” Boettcher readily admits it’s not a film made for festival competition either. But the chance to pay tribute to soldiers at work and at risk was not worth missing for Boettcher. “I wanted to leave behind a historical document that really doesn’t exist, of that part of the war. It’s the only historical document of the surge [in NE Afghanistan].”
The first half makes it a personal work, in that it details Boettcher and his son Carlos covering the war together, culminating in Carlos, whose life like many 20-somethings was “adrift,” covering a run on his own.
“You make choices in your life,” Boettcher said. “Certainly when you are a younger reporter you are always raising your hand. ‘I wanna go, I wanna go.’ If you succeed they are always calling you to go, go, go. It’s hard to say no because in the business sometimes if you say no too many times, then they don’t call you and you’re not working anymore. So it’s a balancing act. I don’t think I walked it very well during my career. I always raised my hand, and I always said yes. It seemed like every Christmas, every Thanksgiving, every birthday, every game I was called up.”
When Carlos told Mike, “Pop I want to go with ya,” he welcomed it and was surprised. He warned him that it was dangerous and he’d lost many of his fellow journalists at the job, and then left it up to Carlos. The film shows Carlos growing into the job rather impressively.
The second half covers Operation Strong Eagle. The battle footage is intense. Soldiers climb through the very steep and dangerous foothills of Kunar Province, Afghanistan, a terrain neither Alexander the Great nor the Soviets could conquer. We meet a sharp West Point grad, Capt. Kevin Mott, giving orders and navigating his platoon through an unknowable terrain. There’s a timid, young medic, Spc. Jameson Lindskog who joined the army after his California physical therapy business went belly up in the recession. He and two others ran into enemy fire to aid a group of soldiers who were cut-off, up against the mountain. While treating other soldiers, Lindskog was wounded. He died while giving instructions to other soldiers on how to treat the remaining wounded, himself included.
The footage Boettcher came away with is woven with soldiers’ testimonials. Towards the end, the viewer is granted unusual access into the emotional response of both soldiers and commanders after this battle, which resulted in six men killed in action. Boettcher says the filmmakers took great pains to make this an apolitical film. “In the battle field, you’re not fighting some huge war on terrorism,” Boettcher says. “You’re fighting for the guy on the left of you and the guy on the right of you.” Yet the motive is clearly passionate and brought about by a certain need.
“All of my life covering stories like this, difficult stories, I go in, do the stories, leave,” Boettcher said. “I never see anybody else again. This time I didn’t want to do that. I was actually tired of that. And that was part of the healing process for me after the suicide bombings I was in [a 2006 hotel bombing in Iraq]. I wasn’t going to walk away anymore. I was going to do something lasting and do something that would rein all of us together.”
With 22 veterans committing suicide daily, according to Veteran’s Affairs numbers for 2010, the importance of “reining” soldiers together becomes clear. For returning soldiers a more private and unpredictable battle happens at home. Boettcher says the soldier tends to isolate. People want to ask you about the war and you don’t want to talk about it. Some of the memories you keep from yourself as well.
“You think about those things later on and that’s where the danger lies for returning veterans coming home. I have 33 years of locking things back into my mind. And at one point in my life it came pouring out. I couldn’t sleep, I was drinking too much. I went to my boss at NBC and said, ‘you know what? I need some counseling.’”
Taking “The Hornet’s Nest” to screen at Stanford, Boettcher caught up with No Slack Battalion commander Lt. Col. Joel Vowell. They talked about coming home and still feeling like your head’s on a swivel. “You haven’t gotten over the fact that you don’t need to continue to look for IEDs or road-side bombs. We do that. My wife will tell you that. I am constantly scanning for danger,” Boettcher said.
Boettcher compares the strange experience of home to the scene in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Hurt Locker” where the bomb defuser played by Jeremy Renner is stuck in a grocery store aisle and can’t begin to process how to pick the right cereal. “When I saw that scene in the movie I looked at my wife and said, ‘look familiar?’ That scene resonated with me more than any other scene in any other war movie. You’re overwhelmed with choices and the constant barrage of advertising. There it’s a simpler life. It’s just staying alive.” ***
Some of the isolated ones have found the film. One marine named Rory Hamill got in touch with Mike via “The Hornet’s Nest” Facebook group. He showed up to a New York screening of the film on his prosthetic leg, he had stepped on an IED. After the film he told the producers that before he saw it he had thought of taking his own life, that he didn’t feel like the same man anymore. The film reminded him of the ones who didn’t come back. He told the producers he wanted to go to the places where the film was screening and talk about what the film did for him.
“It’s given a purpose,” Boettcher said. “If that’s all we do with this film, is save one life. That’s enough.”
So now that Boettcher has tapped into this need among some of the soldiers, he hopes the film will also become a movement. A kind of national reminder, in a time when the media has forgotten it, a testimony of voices that are saying, as the poet once did, I am the man, I suffered, I was there.
“A movement of the people who will not let the nation forget the sacrifices that occur, what our men and women in uniform have done,” Boettcher said. “Because when we forget we get ourselves right back into it, sometimes for dubious reasons. And that’s dangerous for a democracy. So it’s nice that people in airports and other places stop and say ,’Thank you for your services.’ It has to go [further] than that, we can never forget that. We need to be there for them when they need help. We as a nation need to think hard before we commit our troops to a foreign landscape.”
A journalist’s hat, as Boettcher has felt, can be tough to keep on. So at last Friday’s screening of “The Hornet’s Nest” he had his “film cap on.” Gold Star families like The Burgesses arrived in uniform. Other former soldiers arrived out of uniform. He was planted by the ticket podium to make sure they got in. During the film, the events played out. A few of the vets were sitting around me and my friends. They were taking drinks, leaning forward, pressing their heads, saying the name of their fellows (“Cpt. Mott!”) when they appeared on screen. When the casualties rolled in one man got up and embraced the other who was crying, in the company of his family. There are movies like “The Hornet’s Nest” (“Restrepo,” perhaps), but I can’t say I’ve had a theater experience like it. After the film Boettcher took to a Q and A and from there a former marine thanked him for his storytelling while another confessed ambivalence because, honestly sir, “we just don’t like to talk about it.” A succession of voices and emotion went into the air that reminded me of all that stuff about “a movement” that Mike talked about during our interview. It’s the kind of thing a democracy does to purge itself of its worries and agonies.
They had their night. A private service of beverages and snacks were waiting at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. One soldier’s wife had a dark gown draped over a heavily tattooed arm. One was talking about how he’d been writing a lot and this film was confirmation that, that development meant something. Something changes in people when they see they’ve been acknowledged, and despite the public unpopularity of the war these men fought, they are still among us. Their kind of bravery is unique, they are the 1 percent of us who bear the burden, a situation unlike Vietnam. This will make Boettcher’s movement more difficult, even though this week he plans on showing the film to T. Boone Pickens along with some of the Gold Star families. And the film’s tour of military bases and larger cities continues.
At the end of 2014 the United States will still have “an enduring presence” in Afghanistan, but its last combat unit, led by Col. Joel Vowell, from the film, will take its final orders. The man who emerged as central to “The Hornet’s Nest”, Captain Mott, a guy who survived a shot in the head and a 400 foot fall down a cliff, healed in 6 months, hurried to get back with the guys, still leads casualty-laden platoons in Kandahar. Boettcher wants to get back to these men and see the end of the mission through.
Knowing all this, Boettcher starts to look like an ill fit inside of a Starbucks, dutifully answering my questions, fidgeting the green coffee-heat stopper with his fingers. In Ponca City he talks to his childhood friends and sometimes feels jealous that he couldn’t have helped raise the community in the way they had. While they are jealous of him for getting to travel the world and have experiences. Whatever the pull of place may be, a sort of intense camaraderie one experiences in battle stays in you, and prevails. He had to put his shoulder surgery off because of the Moore tornado. He got the surgery and will return to Afghanistan when he’s back at full strength.
“I already know where I’m going to be,” he says.
Trailer for “The Hornet’s Nest.”
***In 1999 Boettcher was working at CNN and investigating terrorism cells in the Middle East. His mentor on the subject was Dr. Steven Sloan at OU. As a war correspondent Boettcher saw it face to face in El Salvador and Beirut. At CNN though the task of studying the terrorist movements proved more mentally exhausting than being embedded with combat troops. Boettcher said, “I returned in early September in Atlanta to put together this documentary that was going to air in October of 2001 called One Day Soon, [about the likelihood of a] mass casualty terrorism event happening in the US within one year. And One Day Soon happened on 9/11 a week into our production of this documentary. Then I spent the next four years just gone, trying to figure out what Al Queda was up to next, how 9/11 happened. It got to be overwhelming for one person. Finally I said ‘forget it.’ I left, I just had had enough because it was never ending. One would be killed and five more would pop up. It was just too daunting of a task.”