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Q and A: Award-Winning Journalist Mike Boettcher

The Easterseals board member and war reporter shares his most riveting career highlights

Mike Boettcher as embedded reporter in Afghanistan

Easterseals board member Mike Boettcher is an award-winning journalist and veteran network correspondent who has reported on three decades of world conflict.

In 2008, Mike left network news to embed with the U.S. troops full time. He developed the “No Ignoring” project in hopes of going back to the old traditions of journalism to tell the raw stories of the soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. His son Carlos joined him, and they became the only reporters devoted to full-time coverage of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their experience led to the creation of their film The Hornet’s Nest, which Mike describes as a historical document about the war.

Mike first became involved with Easterseals through a partnership around The Hornet’s Nest. Because of his experience in Afghanistan, Mike wants to share how Easterseals Dixon Center is supporting communities in their efforts to help veterans as they return home.

You can read more about Mike Boettcher’s partnership with Easterseals here.

Q: You were in a hotel in Iraq when it was attacked by a suicide bomber and that incident changed the course of your life. Can you tell us about that?

A: It did change my life. It was 8:12 in the morning, and I was staying with the NBC compound in a 9 story hotel in Baghdad. The hotel was basically like a prison, each floor had armed coated gates to get through because we were targets. That morning I was walking towards the outside patio when I suddenly saw the brightest flash I’d ever seen in my life, and I suddenly felt the sensation of flying through the air. I heard a loud noise then hit a wall and suddenly it clicked that it was a bomb. It all happened so quickly but it happened in slow motion. I was shaken up, but through my training I knew to always think “second bomb.” As I was diving back to the floor I saw a second flash and I was flying again.

It turns out that it was a dual suicide bombing that was aimed at me because of a story I had done. After the bombing, I immediately felt that I had to go back to work. I should not have because I was hurt. I was banged up and I would find out later that I had a traumatic brain injury, but I would not know how hurt I really was until years later.

We had known that there were children in the buildings around when the bombs went off, because we had played with those children.  We had gone digging for them in the debris, and none of them lived. My experience from that was more severe than my traumatic brain injury and was a stressor that would kick in later in my life.

It was tough, it changed my life, and it makes me grateful for every day I exist. Hornet’s Nest is a product of all that history. I wanted to make something that was impactful.

Journalist Mike Boettcher giving a talk

Q: How did you want to change the way the war was being covered, and how did networks react to this idea?

A: After 3 decades of being a network correspondent, I wanted to do it my way. The practice had devolved into parachute journalism, where we’d go in for a week, tell stories, and come back out. This type of reporting cannot capture the emotion of what the soldiers are going through. We as journalists had stopped embedding and telling the real stories of our men and women in uniform, the stories that the public wanted to hear. I proposed to go back to the old traditions. I wanted to go back to the ways of Ernie Pyle, who was with the troops constantly and brought their stories to the public.

I wanted cover the war differently, and NBC was not comfortable with that. I wanted to be embedded, and I had to leave NBC because they thought my idea was too dangerous. I left on my own to do my own project, and it eventually became an ABC project where we embedded full time.

Q: Why was it so important for you to cover the war in this way?

A: Overall, we had been doing a really poor job of covering the stories of the people that we send to Afghanistan and Iraq in our names. If we don’t listen to their stories, and we lose a connection with the people we send in our name to fight wars for us, than it becomes dangerous to our democracy.  That is why I believe that our networks and newspapers need to do a better job at covering these stories, and that is why I decided to embed with the troops.

No longer was I parachuting in and only slightly getting to know the subjects there. I was there for the long term so these guys became part of my family. Finally, after all these years of covering really bad things and moving on to the next really bad thing, I decided to stay and live the consequences of the bad things that happened. I didn’t just come in for three days and craft a story that I wanted to do, I let the story unfold in front of me, and I let it unfold for months at a time.

Hornet's Nest documentary movie poster 2014

Q:What makes this documentary different than what the public had previously been seeing about the war?

A: In the mist of the project with ABC we decided to make a film on our own that would be a historical document about the war. You would think with so many thousands of troops committed there would be sufficient documentation of the war, but there wasn’t so we decided to fill that void.

What you see in this film that you don’t see in other coverage is a real honesty about what happens on the ground there, how tough it is, why they fight, and what happens when they lose their brothers and sisters in battle. It’s emotional. We live out the consequences of the things that happen in war, and that is what makes the film really special. The film is not about the specific battles fought. It is about the men and women in the battles, and their battle to protect the men and women on either side of them and live to the next day.

Q: How did the film come to be titled “The Hornet’s Nest”?  Does this reference one specific zone of the war?

A: We started at the beginning of the surge in 2009, traveled all over Afghanistan and ended up in the mountains of Northeast Afghanistan in Kunar Province. The film itself is an amalgamation of several episodes that occur, but what happened in the Kunar Province is the heart and soul of the documentary and is where the title came from. The area was Taliban command and control, and what we thought would be a three day mission ended up being a nine day mission. We were surrounded by more than 500 Taliban and fighting for our lives, some of us didn’t end up walking out of there. I didn’t think I would end up walking out of there.

Q: Going back to your earlier reporting, you were there when the Berlin Wall came down, what was that like?

A: The fall of the Berlin Wall was one of the most remarkable events I have ever witnessed. When we were reporting the gradual fall of the East Bloc, people would ask me on air, ‘what’s going to happen to East Germany?’ And I would say, ‘it’s a whole different ball game, 5-10 years at least.’  It fell about 5 months after so that’s the expert I am, but it shows you how quickly an institution can crumble. You think authoritarian regimes have so much power, but if they don’t know the pulse of the people they’re doomed for failure.

When Tom Brokaw and I were deciding when to anchor our show in East Berlin, we picked a date at random. We did not know it was the day the wall was going to come down. We were at the now famous press conference in East Berlin, and my German is not good, but I could understand the spokesperson for the East German Government said, purposefully or by accident, that the passage between the east and west would be open. When he said that my eyes got wide and I nudged Tom, who was nodding off, and I said, “Tom, get over to the west side now!” and that was the famous NBC nightly broadcast coverage of people tearing down the wall. I was on the East side where I could see the police who were shooting off tear gas and water cannons as the East Berliners were charging them and going over the wall until finally, the police gave up and said it was over.

See Tom Brokaw's broadcast of the wall coming down here.

Q: In your life’s work of reporting, do you feel like you’ve made a difference?

A:  That’s why I love working on The Hornet’s Nest, because I’m with soldiers every day. It’s just working with one soldier or one marine at a time. That’s also why I enjoy working with Easterseals, because I’m working with people who are committed to making a difference every single day.

However, normally I’m just talking to the camera and I don’t see the millions of people who are out there, and you become discouraged because you don’t know if you’re making a difference.

The first time I felt like I had made a difference was when I was sent to South East Turkey because the Kurds and Shiites were being butchered and I needed to report it. At that point in history, we had urged the Kurds to fight Saddam but we weren’t backing them up. When I got there we came into a mountain bowl in Iraq that was full of 100,000 people freezing and near death, the women were frantic because their babies were dying. When I showed up they didn’t see me as an NBC reporter, they saw me as the representative of the United States. They asked me where I had been, and were pleading with me to help them. I vowed in that moment to do the best job I could do as a writer, and I did. We were the first people in there telling the stories of what was happening. Things changed after that, and the U.S. intervened.

Almost 10 years later, when I was covering the election fiasco in Tallahassee, Florida, James Baker was holding the press conference for George Bush, Jr. In every press conference he held, he would call on me first, before all of these big white house reporters, even if I didn’t have my hand raised. When I asked him why he was doing this, he told me that when I did those reports in 1991 he was watching with President Bush and they weren’t going to intervene, but when they saw my reports, they changed their minds and intervened. That was the first time in my life that I knew I had actually made a difference.  

Q:Why Easterseals? What’s most exciting about Easterseals for you?

A: It is my honor to be on the board of Easterseals. It’s exciting to be a part of because as a kid growing up in the plains of Oklahoma, Easterseals was a big deal to us. My mom and dad were huge supporters of Easterseals. If they were alive today, they would be so happy to see my involvement. 

Watch The Hornet's Nest trailer here.

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