He Wages Wars with Words | 2016

For most, going to war means being armed with a gun, but Mike Boettcher enters warzones armed instead with cameras, microphones and an unyielding passion for sharing the truth.

For over three decades, Boettcher has worked as a freelance journalist and foreign correspondent for NBC News and CNN, documenting world conflict and the stories of those involved. In an interview, he described some of his own journey and explained why he believes storytelling is one of the most potent forms of ammunition available in the fight against injustice in the world today.

 

Megan Ross: Why did you choose a career in journalism?

Mike Boettcher: I was a young boy in the 1960s, and we were involved in a big war back then--the Vietnam War--and my brother was in the Air Force and was sent to Vietnam. So every night, I would sit in front of the TV set and watch Walter Cronkite and I’d hope to catch a glimpse of my brother in Vietnam, but then I saw those reporters giving reports from out there in Vietnam, and I decided I wanted to be able to go out and do that...I knew back then I wanted to be a foreign correspondent.

 

MR: Did you ever regret your decision?

MB: No, no. I love this job. [Journalists] are given a great gift. I have a ticket to the front row of history, and that’s a great place to be sitting--watching history, being there when it’s happening.

 

MR: If you had to divide your career into chapters, how would you divide it?

MB: I would say I have three chapters. Beginning as a young kid who felt like he didn’t know anything, to a young reporter who felt like he knew everything, then to the last phase of my life, which is, I have a lot to learn.

 

MR: What have you learned so far?

MB: It takes a lot of people working together to make a difference, whether it’s in journalism or politics. And I’ve learned what my mother knew for decades, because my mother was a schoolteacher, and there would always be people who had been her students who had gone away and been successful, and they’d come back and they’d thank my mom. And I didn’t really realize what all that was about until I was able to come [to the University of Oklahoma] and teach. Now I’m finding that the biggest reward in life is influencing a new generation and letting them hear your experiences, letting them hear your mistakes, having them learn from that and succeed.

 

MR: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?

MB: In 1980, I was sent to El Salvador to cover the guerilla war there, which was very bloody, and I mean, I was just off the truck from Oklahoma. I had never covered a war or anything. So I went to the most experienced and oldest guy on the ground there, and said “Hey, look. I don’t know what I’m doing. Do you have any advice for me?” And he said, “Son, never get on your knees.” And I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, except that I knew there was a journalist from ABC News who was killed in 1979 by soldiers in Nicaragua when they told him to get on his knees and shot him in the head. And it was all filmed. His name was Bill Stewart. So five years later, I’m kidnapped in El Salvador by Salvadoran guerrillas who accuse me of being a spy. They took me to the backside of a volcano where bodies used to be dumped. They told me to get on my knees, and I knew they were going to execute me. I refused to get on my knees, because I remembered what he’d told me. And it so confused them that I wouldn’t submit to them--because once you submit, psychologically, I’ve learned, it makes you easier for them to kill. So I decided I’m going to fight them, and I was beaten pretty badly, but they didn’t shoot me. So that was the best advice I got. It saved my life. “Never get on your knees.” And that holds true in a lot of things. Never submit. Never get on your knees.

 

MR: In your opinion, what are the core responsibilities of journalists to the public?

MB: The core responsibility is to give voice to the voiceless. I mean, that’s what I live by. And to be as objective as possible. That doesn’t mean that there is perfect objectivity. There is not. We are all products of our experiences in life. All you can do is try your best to check those at the door and give everyone in the story a voice. But the core principle is to give voice to the voiceless, because those are the people we fight for as journalists, I believe.

 

MR: Do you think storytelling can be a powerful tool?

MB: It’s the most powerful tool on earth. Storytelling is as old as humankind itself, and it’s incredibly important, because people need to be informed, but they don’t want to be told “You need to know this.” They want to be entertained at the same time. They want to feel engaged. With stories, your word can be spread around the world if it’s interesting. [It can] make a difference.

 

MR: So what’s your next major project?

MB: I’m heading to South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East to create a company that will be recruiting young Asian filmmakers and storytellers to tell the stories of their countries. We want those stories to be delivered where Millennials live, whether they’re in Asia or the United States. We are going to tell stories about human trafficking in Southeast Asia, and some of my partners in this business have relationships with Rock Against Trafficking. We hope to combine our storytelling with music to be able to galvanize the international community to be able to fight against human trafficking.

 

While bullets tear flesh and bombs shake the earth, storytelling is Boettcher’s weapon of choice when it comes to making change. As he tackles his next assignment, breaking the silence of the overlooked and oppressed, he’ll maintain his steadfast commitment to the truth, and he will never get on his knees.

 

Papa | 2014

2007: A suffocating numbness crept into the crowded waiting room. The faces of my family members filed into the space, cheeks adorned with silvery trails. It was over. He went in his sleep. After the long, aggressive struggle, cancer struck the final blow gently, in one last quiet exhale. Empty, mournful eyes cast unseeing looks at the yellowed hospital wallpaper, wondering what came next. How would any of us start a new life in a world without my Papa? The sun seemed a little further away as we stood in the parking lot, watching the partly deflated “Get Well Soon” balloons drift sulkily into the sky.

2005: Roses topped tables and white frosting proclaimed “Happy 50th Anniversary!” My feet swung back and forth inches from the floor as I listened to affectionate speeches given by admiring children and friends. Finally, my Papa was given the microphone. He adjusted his too-large bifocals. Yellow sunlight filtered through the window behind him as a few of his self-deprecating jokes filled the room with laughter. Once he was sure he had earned our attention, he smiled and his voice lowered a little. An expectant hush fell. “Life is like a bus ride,” he began, “Some people will get on and ride with you for a few stops, and you’ll share some stories and some laughs. But soon enough, they’ll have to get off at their stop. Other people might ride a little longer and you might go through some tough times together, and you’ll get close. You’ll mean a lot to one another. But eventually, they’ll have to get off at their stop too. That’s okay. That’s life.” Eyes stayed fixed on my Papa, who tucked his hand comfortably in his pocket. “There are some people, however, who will get on the bus and ride with you all the way to the end. Be thankful for those people, because they’ll be there for you no matter what...”

2007: All dressed in black, we sat with empty mournful eyes that cast unseeing looks at stained glass windows wondering what came next. How would any of us start a new life in a world without my Papa? It would take us awhile to remember that he had already told us. We had come to his stop. It was his time to get off. And it was okay. It was life. Our bus wasn’t going to stop, and we couldn’t stop it. It didn’t mean we had to forget. It just meant we had to keep riding, ready for whatever life may bring.

2014: The bell rings, releasing restless minds into the crowded hallways. Lockers slam and papers are carelessly shoved into backpacks. In a few hours, we’ll be under stadium lights proudly clad in red and white, cheering for the team. As I maneuver my way towards the doors, a thought tugs at the back of my mind: in a few months, we’ll again be clad in red and white. This time, however, we won’t be cheering for the team. We’ll be cheering for each other. One by one, we’ll cross the stage, accept that certificate, shake some hands, and it will be over. Another bus stop. Lots of familiar faces will get off. It doesn’t mean we have to forget. We just have to keep riding, ready for whatever life may bring. There’s a long ride ahead, and it will be so beautiful.

Home | 2015

Time stops. The sun becomes nothing more than a glowing backdrop as it follows its familiar path across the sky, tossing yellow light upon the paper in front of me. Acoustic strums and falsetto melodies drown out thoughts of the ticking clock or pressing schedule. The tabletop is littered with pencil shavings of every color. Paintbrushes send paint swirling through formerly clear water, readying themselves for a new hue. My skin is smeared with graphite, stained with paint and ink, but I don’t mind. Truthfully, it doesn’t matter where I am. When I am creating, I am content. I am home.

There are countless geographical locations across this sprawling earth that would provide me with equal measures of tranquility and repose, none more than the rest, because to me, happiness can not be bound by a white picket fence, nor can it be marked by any one pin in a map. It relies entirely upon the attitude I choose to adopt and the endeavors I choose to engage in, regardless of the location I happen to occupy. How limiting it would be to establish the pinnacle of contentment in just one place. The only invariable aspect of life on earth is the promise of unceasing variety, and the acceptance of this reality breeds in a person a healthy allotment of adaptability.  Life does not restrict itself to one location, so why should happiness?

Therefore, it is in the act of creation that I find my contentment. There is a certain sort of gratification that can only be found in drawing something into existence where it did not exist before--taking a blank sheet of paper and a few chunks of graphite and forming them into a piece  that inspires others to feel something powerful and new. The universe, God’s divine design, demands to be appreciated. From the vast multitude of glittering galaxies to the way that dull afternoon light filters through the window across cracked tile floors, the exquisite beauty of His creation can be found wherever it is sought after. There is fulfillment in the ability to translate even a miniscule degree of that beauty and complexity in my work--to use my own hands to imitate His process of creation. My location is inconsequential. Whether I find myself in a crowded subway car or on a mist-covered summit in the Smoky Mountains, I may still retreat into the recesses of my imagination and bring forth an expression of what I find there.

I will spend my life seeing as much of this world as I can. Travelling from one corner of the earth to the other, making it all my home. I will document its grandeur through lens and pencil and pen. Contentment will not be my home to return to, but rather, my companion, joining me wherever I venture. As long as I am creating, I will never be lost, because art is not my occupation: it is my home.

In Love With "Love" | 2014

They say that America is a nation obsessed with love.

For decades we’ve spent our Friday nights with buckets of popcorn in our laps, choked up over the silver-studded tales of passion that Hollywood throws upon a big white screen for us. Melodies about romance and attraction occupy the radio waves, pouring out of our speakers, and racing to the tops of charts. Hours that should have been spent studying, are instead spent between book covers, exchanging reality for the worlds of Allie and Noah, Bella and
Edward, or Jay and Daisy. In all too many households, Monday nights are reserved for the latest episode of the Bachelor. Perhaps we are a nation obsessed with love…

In 2004, the American divorce rate broke 50 percent.

For a nation obsessed with love, this is a remarkable statistic. Could it really be that more than half of these people couldn’t find love in their relationship? They gazed up at the glowing sunsets and gentle kisses on the screen, and when they tore themselves away and looked at the shattered pieces of their own relationships strewn across the ground, they saw that it looked nothing like the movies. It read nothing like the book. It didn’t even sound like the same song. So their relationship couldn’t have been love, right? Sure, they thought it was love in the beginning. It had felt like a fairytale, but the next chapter wasn’t at all happily ever after. It certainly wasn’t exciting as the once upon a time. So they erased the relationship and went out in search of another fluttery heart or hand to hold under a sky full of stars. Because that’s what love must be.
 
They thought they were searching for love. However their quest was far less noble, primitive even. What they searched for was a release of chemicals in their body’s endocrine system. Testosterone, estrogen, adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and vasopressin. These chemicals are released in
your body during the early phases of the relationship. That’s what gives you butterflies in your stomach, and makes your heart skip a beat when you see that face. It allows your brain to create a strong attachment to that special person, making long-term relationships possible. It’s a wonderful thing, but it isn’t love. It’s a chemical reaction. The two are commonly confused.

America is not obsessed with love. America is obsessed with the hormones brought on by the beginning of love. Once the chemicals wear away a
bit, we’re often mistaken into thinking that the love is wearing away as well, because all we’ve ever been told is that the chemicals are love. Chemicals are a
part of love, yes. But today’s media incessantly tells us that chemicals and love are one and the same. Turn on the radio. Chances are, you’ll hear a familiar voice singing about their latest love affair. The kiss. The touch. The body. The media enthusiastically describes the warmth and excitement that overwhelms us when love begins.

But you won’t find a book, song, or film that talks about the days when the hormones return to more reasonable levels. They don’t make movies about
dropping the kids off at soccer practice or arguing about credit card debts. So we’re left with only descriptions of a magical, new love to create expectations for the entire relationship.

Once the relationship moves past those first stages, we think something’s wrong, because what we have doesn’t look like what’s on the screen anymore. But in reality, once the hormones subside, you’re left with only love. You’re left with the knowledge of everything about that other person, all the little things you memorized while you were hyped up on dopamine and serotonin. You know the color of their eyes, the sound of their laugh, the foods they hate, and the feeling of their hand around yours. Because of this connection that was created, you can find peace in knowing that no matter what they do, you’ll always be able to forgive them.

Now, there will be dark days when every little thing you memorized about them becomes every little thing you hate; when the pain they cause you tears a hole in the middle of your chest. You’ll both make mistakes. You’ll want to leave. But if you stay, and you pour every ounce of effort you have into that
relationship, you’ll find out that there’s going to be a day when the sun breaks through the clouds. You’ll remember why you loved them, and they’ll remember why they loved you. You’ll learn to appreciate each other in ways you never did before. It’s probably not going to make your heart skip a beat, but that’s okay. Because you’ll find that no one else will stick with you like that other person will.

They’ll see you at your very worst, but when you wake up, they’ll still be next to you. Every day, you’ll experience life together. You’ll create a history together. And that can never be replaced. The hormones are just a bonus. 

I Am An American | 2013

From under neon spray-painted bridges
Below the Motor City sun
Hear the voices shouting over street-corner saxophones
Rich, caramel, story-filled voices
Glistening gold chains, puffed up chests and saggy jeans can’t cover
The gnawing, relentless poverty that riddles away the scarred menbelow
Still the voices ring out
“We are Americans.”

Charming classical notes float from the piano
Among the intricate antique chairs
Steaming green tea passes across wrinkled red lips
Into weary mouths forever locked into suave smiles
That wordlessly tell of weighty inheritances
Haughty laughter is released from their emerald-adorned throats
 Caught up in the endless string of sparkling gaieties that is simply life
 They pompously announce
“We are Americans”

 Machinery shrieks and echoes and rattles the tirelessfactory
 Scanty sunbeams struggle though thick, dust-filled air
Reflecting off beads of sweat upon dirty brows
 Laborers that have become a part of the machine
Their solid muscles are nothing more than gears and axels
But beneath tough skin, blood rushes through a heart filled with hope
 Liberty promised prosperity
They won’t stop until the promise is fulfilled
So with teeth bared
Shockingly white against the soot caked into the crevices of their skin
They scream
“We are Americans”
 
An unborn heart pumps rhythmically
Where nothing existed three weeks before
Curled up timidly in the blackness
It anticipates the moments that will someday be remembered
Days spent beside breaking waves on sandy beaches
Nights spent watching sparks float from flames to join an army of constellations
 For the unborn, the future holds talent
Wondrous world-changing talent
But now it floats in darkness
Inherently knowing
“I am an American”

The Hollywood sign hangs like a title overhead
Youthfulness fills the air
Streaming from stereo speakers
Reflecting off colored plastic sunglasses
Adolescent recklessness dictates actions
Daisy dukes and bare feet
Surf boards and untamed hair
Intoxicated by the obscurity of the future
Freedom fills their lungs
They shout
“We are Americans”

Farewell tears shimmer down his cheeks
Dressed in a uniform he will wear constantly in coming days
A final glance is tossed over his shoulder
A weeping family watches him step on the plane
Abandoning his hopes to the future
Brave, patriotic, unshakably loyal
Sacrifice has settled itself in the deepest parts of his mind
And had found no discomfort there
He watches a distant flag fluttering beside the landing strip
A flurry of red, white and blue
Humbly valiant, he declares
“I am an American.”