What started as an attempt by veteran network news correspondent Mike Boettcher to reconnect with his son Carlos has given us a searing documentary of war in Afghanistan. “The Hornet’s Nest” is a compilation of combat footage captured by the two men with hand-held cameras, while they were embedded with American troops on the front lines. That footage is complimented by intimate portraits of the soldiers themselves, as well as moments of self-reflection by the two journalists.
The Boettchers trailed the 101st Airborne 327th Infantry, 2nd Battalion ARMY, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment USMC, and 3 BCT “Rakkasans” Airborne, Army in their effort to bridge the disconnect between America’s fighting forces and an American public that, with rare exception, barely acknowledges their existence, much less their enormous sacrifices.
Christian Tureaud, who along with David Salzberg produced and directed the movie, heartily echoes that sentiment. “There is a disconnection between the military and the civilian community and we hope this film can be the bridge between the two,” Tureaud said. “We can’t have what happened in Vietnam happen again, where the country doesn’t embrace these heroes. They have to be embraced – to have jobs, housing, healthcare and support for what they have done.”
Mike Boettcher was less diplomatic. “The President, Congress, pundits, candidates and news anchors keep telling us we are a nation at war. No, we’re not,” he said. “The nation is not at war. The Army is at war. Marines are at war. Sailors and airmen are at war. While they fight and die thousands of miles away, we sit comfortably at home and sacrifice nothing.”
The movie is essentially divided into two parts, with the first half dedicated to Mike and Carlos going out with the troops together. Graphics keep us informed as to whose camera is capturing the action, and there is one heart-stopping moment when we hear the sound of a bullet’s thudding impact and Carlos’s camera falls to the ground. It is then we get a hint of the huge gamble Mike has taken by allowing his son to accompany him.
In reality he had no choice. “Everything I have achieved in my career has come at a high price,” he explains. “It cost me my relationship with my family and my son….So when it was time to re-embed with the troops in Afghanistan, my son Carlos decided he was coming with me, with or without my permission. He said ‘I need to know why you chose your work over us.’”
Another critical scene shows the detonation of 600 pounds of explosive by a suicide bomber while an American convoy was passing by. The Americans were unhurt, but Afghan children were killed and injured. The movie documents the heroic efforts made by American medical personnel to save the life and the leg of an injured boy.
The rest of the first half reveals the combination of tedium and terror that accompanies periods of calm broken by explosions, bullets whizzing by and thumping home, the shouting of orders, and the crackling of radios. We see troops lugging 80 pounds of equipment over harsh terrain where temperatures reach as high as 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
Carlos is separated from his father when Mike is too tired to hike another ten miles as part of a rescue effort of soldiers from the 1st Platoon trapped by the Taliban. Through the entire movie, solider after soldier expresses his primary motive for moving towards the sound of war, rather than away from it: protecting their fellow soldiers. Mike believes his son “grew up” during that separation and that he would eventually “be a better storyteller than I am.” Carlos left shortly thereafter.
The second half of the movie deals with the mission to take out Qari Zia Rahman (QZR), a Taliban warlord in the Barwala Kalay Valley. The mission, originally supposed to last a single day, turns into nine days of brutal action. That action costs six Americans their lives. Their deaths are personalized because the film-makers allow us to get to know them, along with many of their fellow soldiers who, like the victims themselves, know that the help they desperately need is not going to get there in time. We see a Medevac helicopter making multiple attempts to rescue some of the wounded, but it gets shot so many times it has to retreat before it crashes. We see the devastation of troops who now know their fellow soldiers are going to die.
One of the soldiers who died was medic Jameson L. Lindskog. He got hit attempting to run through a hail of bullets to rescue other men. Even as he lay mortally wounded, he helped his fellow soldiers treat three of those wounded—before he apologized for dying. “How do you process that?” a weeping Mike Boettcher wonders. “As a reporter with a camera…you don’t.”
Following the battle we get interviews with soldiers attempting to process the deaths of their fellow warriors, followed by heart-rending scenes of the dead soldiers themselves, interspersed with more combat, captured Taliban video, and some well-deserved downtime. Along with Lindskog these heroes include Bryan A Burgess, Jeremy P. Faulkner, Dustin J. Feldhaus, Ofren Arrechaga, and Frank E. Adamski.
By the end of the battle, QZR and his fighters are forced out of the valley. The movie notes that the terrorist warlord was eventually killed in 2013.
Following the action, the movie moves to a scene where Gen. David Petraeus pins medals of honor on many of the soldiers we have gotten to know. It is followed by a memorial service for the fallen. When the names of the dead are called, we are shown pictures of each man. Another gut-wrenching scene shows troops’ commanding officer staying behind as the others leave. Not knowing he is being filmed, he falls to his knees and weeps for his fallen comrades.
At the end of the movie Mike Boettcher explains what drives him. “We only do this to make a difference. That’s why you constantly keep going back, keep fighting, keep trying to tell these stories,” he says. “Otherwise my life’s been for nothing. You know something? It’s been for something. It has.”
This movie is a testament to that reality. So far it has been shown exclusively to veterans and their families across the country. “They have been calling it digital medicine,” said Salzberg. “It helps them cope, and it allows their wives and their children and their families to come and see first-hand what they are experiencing. Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to explain… It starts a dialogue. It allows them to cry about it for the first time, to hug and to really understand. Many have come and told us that the film has saved lives, and that it has kept marriages together.”
Tureaud expresses his hopes regarding the movie’s theatrical release on May 23. “We hope there is a spontaneous act of love towards our veterans. You don’t watch this film and pity these men. They don’t want you to pity them,” he said. “You watch this film and see them as the heroes that they are.”
For those Americans who want to see genuine heroes when they go to the movies, “The Hornet’s Nest” is an opportunity not to be missed.
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