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Finding family in a war zone

NORMAN — America's longest war — you know, the one we are still fighting in Afghanistan — hardly seems the place to piece together a movie about families and the shared experiences that tie them together.

Journalists Mike Boettcher and his son, Carlos Boettcher, traveled there to chronicle American soldiers and their missions. They ended up finally getting to know each other and the American men and women fighting on the front lines.

"The Hornet's Nest," which opened in select theatres including Moore's Warren Theatre this weekend, is not a Hollywood-style movie where chiseled actors play Army and then retreat to their air conditioned trailers for a nap and massage each afternoon. This is storytelling at its best.

The Boettchers embedded first with Marines, then Mike with the 101st Airborne, to bring the war home to America. It should come with a warning: This is a movie with real firefights captured on hand-held and helmet-mounted cameras, soldiers pinned down by faceless Taliban fighters, snipers and IEDs. Make no mistake, this is a real war with real footage. Soldiers, six of them, are killed in action on the Boettcher's watch.

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Staff Sgt. Bryan A. Burgess was one of the heroes. He died with five others on March 29, 2011, in Kunar Province. His father, Terry Burgess of Fort Worth, said the movie's producers, Christian Tureaud and David Salzberg, engaged the families early on in the film's making.

"It's indescribable the first time you see it," Burgess said. Over the next three years, the producers sought out family input.

"I have to admit I had not heard the term Gold Star family until we became one," Burgess said, adding his son's fellow soldiers are now part of his extended family.

"He did not die alone. His men were right there with him," Burgess said.

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Some of those men were on hand Thursday with the Boettchers and the film's producers. The openings in the nation's heartland is by choice. It was shown first in Dallas then Ponca City, hometown of the Boettchers. Moore was chosen because it is a city known for its resiliency.

"It's about grassroots, the country and the support of the military," said Tureaud, one of the producers. "We take a real risk by doing it this way. But we like to be out of the box. We like to take risk because with great risk comes great rewards -- or great failure."

The movie expands to additional cities May 16 and May 23. It will be nationwide by early June. The budget is miniscule by Hollywood standards.

"We're going slow because we want it to build grassroots momentum," Tureaud said.

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Mike Boettcher, a longtime network and freelance war correspondent, began working in radio news while studying journalism at OU. He reminds his students that his first on-air sign off wasn't from ABC News or CNN or even Channel 9 in Oklahoma City. It was from Oklahoma City radio station KTOK. "This is Mike Boettcher, Red Rover, Over."

He admits to missing many family birthdays, holidays and special events while he was dispatched to world hotspots. Carlos, then a graduate student, announced he was going with his dad to Afghanistan in 2011.

In the film, father and son are briefly separated, and Mike's game face becomes that of desperate father instead of detached journalist. They are reunited and then separated again by design. It's a long wait as Mike rests at the base camp.

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Carlos returns to the United States while Mike embeds with the 101st Airborne. He appeared with his dad, the movie's producers and others at a Warren Theatre preview Thursday night.

"I want this movie to not only spread awareness but action," he said. "We want people to not only understand what the veterans have gone through but to take action."

His dad's reasoning is more specific.

"The reason we did this film is to connect that 99 percent of the nation that does not feel the pain of war with the one percent that does," said Boettcher, a professor in OU's Gaylord College professor of journalism.

"We want you to not only honor and thank that service man or woman when you see them but to give them a hug."

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