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A reporter and his son embed with U.S. troops in Afghanistan

July 3, 2014 at 8:28 PM EDT
Veteran war correspondent and ABC News producer Mike Boettcher and his son Carlos spent time over the course of two years with various Army and Marine Corps units as they went out on patrol and fought the Taliban. In addition to regular news reports, the father and son reporting team made a feature-length film, “The Hornet’s Nest.” Judy Woodruff talks to Boettcher.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A number of journalists over the past decade have covered the war in Afghanistan. But, as far as we know, there has been only one father-and-son reporting team.

ABC News producer and veteran war correspondent Mike Boettcher and his son Carlos spent over the course of two years with various Army and Marine Corps units as they went out on patrol and fought the Taliban. Besides producing regular news reports, they also made a feature-length documentary film, “The Hornet’s Nest,” which was recently released in selected theaters.

And Mike Boettcher joins me now.

Welcome to the NewsHour.

Mike, at the beginning of this film, you say that the idea for this grew out of your long, many years you spent on the road covering wars as a foreign correspondent. Tell our audience where the idea came from.

MIKE BOETTCHER, Producer, “The Hornet’s Nest”: Well, Judy, as you know, I have been kicking around doing this a long time, over three decades.

And for me, this was a line in the sand. No longer would I parachute into somewhere and be there for a few days, try to tell the stories of these soldiers and Marines. I felt that we had to go to old traditions, traditions of my hero, Ernie Pyle, the famous World War II correspondent.

And if we as a nation are going to commit soldiers in for 13 years, then we better doggone well be there to tell their stories day in and day out, and you just can’t send them off and forget about it. And I felt that that is what we needed to do.

We needed to be there every day, so that I could be there telling their stories, what they were enduring over long periods of time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And your son said, I’m coming with you, and you originally didn’t think it was a great idea.

MIKE BOETTCHER: No, no, not really.

I mean, I was concerned, because, you know, we have lost a lot of friends covering many different wars and this war as well. And I knew what the consequence of that could be. I mean, this is my son. But I started to realize that he was the same age as those young men and women who raised their hand and said, I will go to Afghanistan, I will go to Iraq to serve my nation.

And this was his way to serve. He was bound and determined to do it, and that’s what he did. And it was — you know, we are so close now because of this. We made it through it. And I really love my son, and I’m glad we came out of there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes, that comes through in the film. You did start out saying that you had been away from him a lot when he was growing up, and this was part of an attempt to be close to him.

I want to show our audience, Mike — and I think you know what excerpt we’re going to show — some of the film. This is a scene in Afghanistan. You’re out on patrol. Just set the scene and the circumstances for us and what we’re going to see.

MIKE BOETTCHER: Well, this was Operation Strong Eagle III.

We had landed at 3:00 in the morning on a mountaintop just right on the Pakistan border. There was snow on the ground. And we made our way down. And the mission on this big operation was to really hit the Taliban command-and-control in that part of Afghanistan.

So as they’re moving down the mountains, they’re finding mortars, they’re finding RPGs. One of the rockets they found was made in China. They found dozens of rifles. And then, all of a sudden, as we moved down the mountain, we were hit from all sides.

This was supposed to be a three-day mission, but we were surrounded. Every unit that was out there with us — this was the No Slack Battalion of the 101st Airborne — was taking fire from 365 degrees.

And it was — 360 degrees. It was a horrific experience. And there was no place to run. And the weather was bad and medevacs couldn’t come in.

So, in this battle, we lost six really brave guys. For example, the medic, Jameson Lindskog, who ran down a mountainside in a hail of gunfire to save his buddies, and then at the end apologized for dying. That — those are the kinds of stories that you can’t tell from the armchair. You have got to be there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, let’s — we’re going to show our viewers just a piece of the film right now.

MAN: Get over here. What is that?



MAN: Oh, my God. That thing is straight out of China, like yesterday.

MAN: How could it get out of China?

MAN: That thing is brand-spanking new.

MAN: I’m down here on objective Richmond, and 1st Platoon can’t get to the first series of buildings. They keep finding more ammunition. They keep finding more pieces. They keep finding more stuff.

MAN: I don’t know what it is. It’s a rifle, bolt-action of some sort.

MAN: What does that look like?

MAN: Six to seven RPGs, probably eight mortars, a couple boxes of fuses.

MAN: Definitely an indicator that we caught them by surprise.

MAN: Hey, Z.

MAN: What’s up?

MAN: Give me eyes on that ridge at your 11.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mike, there were many more unnerving scenes like this one in the film. Did you change the way you did your reporting because your son was with you?

MIKE BOETTCHER: No, because I wanted him to learn the way I did things. And it was definitely an apprenticeship. I did try to keep him between the point of gunfire, put myself between that and him, but he wasn’t having any of that.

And, really, Judy, it turned out that he’s a better storyteller and a better photographer than I ever will be. And I didn’t because that’s the way I learned back in El Salvador in 1980. I was just thrown in there in the early days of CNN, and I learned on my own.

At least I was with him. And I really think we need a new generation of young journalists who are willing to go out there — and they’re out there — to tell these stories. And it takes great risk and it takes great sacrifice, personal sacrifice. You’re gone constantly. And, you know, that was one of the things, was to — at the end of this, I had finally reconnected with my son, the hard way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What does he say that he took away from this experience?  I know he’s written about it.

MIKE BOETTCHER: Yes, what he took away was, he had no comprehension — like a think of vast majority of the young generations of America, he had no comprehension of the sacrifice that men and women his age give to their nation.

And, you know, as we approach the Fourth of July tomorrow, that’s something to think about. He said now he knows. He knows what that’s about. It’s not something far off. It’s something very close and personal to him, that people raise their hands and say, send me. And that’s what he learned.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what is your son — you continue to be a correspondent or — and a producer. What is your son doing?

MIKE BOETTCHER: Yes, and as well I’m teaching, as you know, as the University of Oklahoma, my alma mater, at the Gaylord College.

And Carlos is a staff producer for ABC News in New York and goes out with other correspondents now. He doesn’t need to have his old man with him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s quite a stirring story, and we thank you for sharing with us.

It’s great to see you again, Mike. Thank you.

MIKE BOETTCHER: Great to see you.

And the DVD of this will be out 9/9 in September, right before 9/11.


Thank you again.