In 2018, the US Air Force ran its annual Hollywood ‘industry leader tour’, this time to Air Force Special Operations Command. In this episode we go through over 500 pages of internal documents about this event, including how the Air Force pitched a story about the Thai Cave Rescue, went out of their way to make the demonstrations as explosive as possible, and lied about the tour to journalists.
We have explored in previous episodes the US Air Force’s entertainment industry leader tours, to both Alaska and Space Command. I recently got hold of over 500 pages of emails and other internal documents on their 2018 tour for Hollywood bigshots, this time to Special Operations Command, or AFSOC. This was in response to an over two year old FOIA request, but we’re here now, so let’s take a look at this story.
To recap, in 2016 the Air Force took dozens of writers, producers and studio executives up to Alaska to tour a couple of bases, see the snow (which you don’t get much of in Commiefornia), do a little SERE training and generally meet and talk with members of the Air Force. As the documents put it, in an FAQ for participants:
The US Air Force Entertainment Liaison Office, based in Los Angeles, seeks to build relationships across the entertainment industry at all levels, in hopes of creating possible future partnerships for creativity and growth. You were selected due to your unique position as an industry leader, and because the military wants to familiarize you with its number one weapons system — the men and women of your US Air Force.
Rick Loverd of the Science and Entertainment Exchange was a big part of making this tour a success – he recommended a list of around 70 industry leaders, helped generate interest in the trip, and went on it himself.
It was apparently a big success, as the Air Force arranged a similar tour, this time of US Space Command, the following summer. The aim of the trip was ‘To project and protect the image of the United States Air Force within the global entertainment environment.’ This then became the motto of the Air Force entertainment liaison office. When Glen Roberts (who was head of the Air Force office when these tours were conceived) took over from David Evans at the main DOD Hollywood office, he evidently took this with him. In a recent piece in the Guardian, which I was interviewed for, he said his mission is to ‘project and protect the image of our armed forces.’
Note: ‘project’. This coming from a guy who says they don’t ever pitch, they’re essentially a passive entity who works with culture producers and that ‘Productions love us because we provide authenticity and credibility. And also, they get substantial cost savings.’
While Roberts left the Air Force ELO in 2017, there was another tour in 2018, to Air Force Special Operations Command. This wasn’t as successful, less than a dozen people attended. Obviously, the last couple of years with all the lockdowns and distancing and nonsense has made this sort of thing much more difficult, if not impossible.
Somewhat weirdly, when I asked the Air Force for documents on the Alaska and Space Command tours, they only really released stuff from the Hollywood office. For the Special Ops Command tour, they released a lot more stuff, loads of internal emails from Hurlburt Field in Florida, where the Command HQ is located, but the list of who attended is entirely redacted, unlike in previous releases.
I’m just guessing that this is because some adversarial good-for-nothing journalist decided to publish the names of the people who went on prior military-Hollywood tours on his website, social media, in one of his books, and so on.
So while there are comparisons with episode 154 – Hollywood Goes to Space Command – this is quite a different story, one where outright lies take centre stage.
Air Force Special Operations Command Welcomes Hollywood Bigwigs
The Tour took place in September 2018, with the visit lasting from September 10th to the 12th, so they were there on the 9/11 anniversary. The only mention of this in the files is that a military photographer wasn’t available on that day because they were busy at the 9/11 ceremony and other events.
The discussions began in April, with a view to doing the Tour in July, but that clashed with Comic-Con so the Air Force entertainment liaison office couldn’t do it. The documents state several different aims for the event, ranging from simply ‘Educate Hollywood producers’ to:
Provide heavy-hitter Hollywood producers an AFSOC immersion focused on Special Tactics Airmen and air-to-ground capabilities. This is a great opportunity to educate this community and make them more credible advocates for us in the production of any future movies/television productions on the Air Force and our Special Tactics community.
Provide Hollywood producers/writers a first-hand opportunity to view the capabilities of Air Force Special Operations Command personnel and weapons systems. The immersion will increase their knowledge of the AFSOC mission, making them more credible advocates for the command in the production of any future movies/television productions on the Air Force, AFSOC and the Special Tactics community.
The language is fairly clear – they wanted to promote Air Force special operations, the people, the technology, the systems. Bear in mind the normalisation of black ops that I talked about in episode 229, though of course special ops are not necessarily black ops as such.
One email says:
These are high‐level writers and producers (Marvel, Call of Duty, etc.). This is their version of PDSS, and we won’t be seeing any movies for another 2+ years. But this is how they get solid, accurate insight into how we operate.
PDSS is Pre-Deployment Site Surveys, i.e. part of the preparation for a mission. I do enjoy how they use military acronyms to try to make sense of Hollywood and explain why they’re doing these things.
They actually chose those days in September because that’s when they had a DIT demo scheduled, after they realised the July demo clashed with Comic-Con. DIT is Dynamics of International Terrorism, and the plan involved a bomb search on a vehicle as well as an explosives demonstration.
Most of these exchanges were between Travis Schirner, a long-time entertainment liaison officer and Amanda Farr, at AFSOC public affairs. As Schirner put it when Farr suggested the September dates:
Let me talk to the boss and see if Sept works for him. I know he wants explosions and weapons (people in Hollywood love a spectacle), so I suspect he’ll be fine with it.
In another email he said they wanted to make a three day tour, to offer fuller immersion, writing:
Would 10‐12 Sept or 12‐14 Sept work? He was thinking a mix of field activities (to include explosions, helicopters, all the bells and whistles) and DIT…
Indeed, they talk about explosives and explosions a lot in these emails. Another one describes the DIT event as including:
– briefings on how terrorists go kinetic
‐ demo of live fire in urban setting, against cars, various explosives and Molotov cocktails.
Sadly, the Hollywood types weren’t allowed to fire the weapons or handle the explosives, but the Air Force did concede to letting them handle weaponry. There was also a demo of weapons capabilities, they really played up the hoo-rah, bomb the shit out of them type of experience.
Another thing that amused me is that when Farr spoke to ‘the boss’, i.e. Lt Col Nathan Broshear, who took over the Air Force office after Roberts left, they talked about the Brony panel at Comic-Con. I’ve mentioned this before, it involved military members of the Brony (My Little Pony Bros) subculture discussing not only their interest in cartoon ponies but also mental health in the military. It was mentioned in the Air Force ELO reports, and clearly caused a bit of a stir because the panel was definitively not the image they wanted to ‘project and protect’.
The Tour also included a flight in a CV-22 Osprey, which has featured in Man of Steel, Transformers, The Suicide Squad and other major movies. It’s quite distinctive looking, because it converts from a helicopter into a plane in mid-air, so it does vertical take-offs and landings but can fly much faster than a helicopter in-between.
Then there was a demonstration of a landing, infiltration of a building and clearing it, and engaging OPFOR (opposing force). This was followed by a heavy weapons demo, including fire from AC-130U aircraft, which are fairly gigantic and carry airbourne artillery, and an exfiltration and landing at Base Ops, presumably also in the CV-22.
Essentially, the tour involved a series of briefings as well as live-action training events, to both induct the attendees into Air Force Special Operations and give them ideas for visuals and sequences and vehicles they could use in their movies. I have to say, if the aim was to make an impression I think they planned this very, very well.
The Swag Bag Controversy
The only major hiccup in the entire event was the issue of swag kits or swag bags, containing baseball caps, t-shirts, pendants and other touristy crap with the AFSOC logo printed on it. This idea came up late in the day – in the week before the tour actually took place.
Indeed, the planning for the tour was somewhat rushed, trying to get all the approvals and permissions for the various briefings, demonstrations and driving the writer/producers around for static demos of numerous aircraft. As one email from an exasperated public affairs official said:
Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Daniel Craig, Emily Blunt….these are just some of the people not coming with Lt Col Nathan Broshear when he brings writers, producers‐types to Hurlburt 10‐12 Sep. However, if AFSOC wants a movie made about us these are the people we have to interest and impress. Since we are about two weeks away we really, really, really need an itinerary. Please plan on coming over here for a meeting at 1300. Thank you.
George Clooney (He was born in the same hospital as both of my brothers)
Another slightly weary message around the same time described some of the demos, and signed off:
Hollywood huh? Didn’t they get enough during the Transformers movies?
The irony being that this was put together by the Air Force, not requested by Hollywood.
When it came to swag bags, Schirner wrote an email on September 4th saying:
Not an immediate concern, but we wanted to also talk about putting together goody bags for the attendees with patches, coins, maybe a shirt… We could charge them a landing fee of $50 or so and give them a bunch of swag from units they visited.
They’re gonna want to buy stuff anyway, so doing these bags upfront would be easier than coordinating with the booster clubs to get them out to certain locations during the trip…
Farr sent the idea up the chain for discussion, and the new head of AFSOC public affairs said he had no problem, but another public affairs officer, the one who sent the ‘Clooney’ email above, wrote:
All right, we just had an impromptu meeting on this. The Chief said “who tasked Capt Farr with this? I said “no one did (meaning in this office‐‐Amanda had taken the call from Broshear)” Chief back‐‐”somebody did, she didn’t think it up herself.” Then the Chief said she would front the $400 to buy the souvenirs. I said I was not comfortable with that.
She then “suggested” that we go to Broshear‐‐then walked away.
Truthfully, this is the first time in my 35 years anyone expected to be given anything other than a coin when they came through the gate. In the past, and we’ve had heavier ‐hitters than this, they bought coins, golf shirts, etc when they visited a particular squadron. I personally think it is kind of strange we are essentially “selling” them something without them even seeing it‐‐but maybe that’s the way it’s done in NY/LA?
The head of the office replied:
Bro pitched this to me last wk; I advised him a legal review would be prudent. If he has the A‐OK to do this, Bro can then Venmo the cash to us to buy the wares. We should not be fronting this cash. Pls make sure Chief and Capt Farr know our intent. Thx
This is quite bizarre because there had already been a discussion over whether any of the aircraft required for the demonstrations could be specifically tasked in order to do the things they wanted to show to the Hollywood producers. This went back and forth, initially AFSOC refused to do anything that wasn’t already scheduled or had specific training value, but they relented. They discussed drawing up costs, but it wasn’t clear who would be paying these costs – not the producers, not the Hollywood office, so who?
That they’d then be quibbling over a few hundred bucks for souvenirs – however superfluous – makes this entire episode quite, quite ridiculous. It isn’t clear exactly what happened with the swag bags, since the email chain goes dead once they’d referred the whole matter back to Broshear.
How the Air Force Pitched the Thai Cave Rescue to Hollywood
In June and July that summer, a junior football team got caught in rising waters in a cave complex in Northern Thailand. You may remember this story – there was a controversy after Elon Musk accused one of the people who rescued the boys of molesting some of them.
Two AFSOC Airmen also played a role in the rescue, and the Air Force wanted to play up this part of the story in the inevitable Hollywood adaptation. So, after the July option for the Tour proved unworkable, they wrote in a ‘Thai Cave Rescue briefing’ by a Major Craig Savage.
It always amuses me when someone in the military has an appropriately unpleasant name like this. One of the officers who reviewed the Top Gun: Maverick script and ‘weaved in key talking points’ was a Captain Walter Slaughter.
Anyhow, this Thai Cave Rescue story was a major (sic) reason why the Air Force wanted to do this Tour. As another email from Captain Farr put it:
Intent from Lt Gen Webb with Hollywood (specifically re: Thai cave rescue) is that Hollywood is going to do what Hollywood does best…and sometimes it’s better to lean forward and provide the insight and facts up front than stand on the sidelines and see a movie come out that completely misses the AFSOC piece. Whereas, we have an opportunity to shape the narrative now.
Consider, this is before anyone had bought the rights to tell this story, since this email was sent within weeks of the rescue taking place, and the Tour happened only a month or so later. That’s how quickly the Air Force was onto this as a PR opportunity – they weren’t just recognising the potential for the film version to help their public image, they were actively pitching the AFSOC angle to film producers within about 8 weeks of the events happening.
Again, coming from a group of offices who ‘don’t ever pitch’, this aspect of the Tour puts the lie to what Glen Roberts has repeatedly said.
But why would they be pitching this Thai Cave football team story? Well, it fits in with a trend that has emerged over the last 25 years or so, where the military loves to be depicted in non-combat roles. Saving Private Ryan turned the horror and decimation of the invasion of Europe during WW2 into a rescue story. Black Hawk Down turned the fuck up of the Battle of Mogadishu – which military commanders failed to predict and likely provoked – into a rescue story.
The CIA are also in on the game – Argo, set against the backdrop of the Iranian revolution which the CIA failed to predict and likely provoked – turns the Iranian hostage problem into a rescue story. Back to the DOD, The Long Road Home turns the Battle of Sadr City – which command failed to predict and likely provoked – into a rescue story. Back to the CIA, The Courier turns the Cuban Missile Crisis – which the CIA failed to predict and absolutely did provoke – into a rescue story.
More broadly, you have the ‘nice military rescues’ in moves including Goldeneye, Apollo 13 and Jurassic Park III, and the military providing disaster relief in Godzilla, Armageddon, Deep Impact, Greenland and others. On top of that you have innovative embedded reality TV shows like Inside Combat Rescue, and the various copies and spin offs.
You see, this technique turns military and intelligence fiascos into heroic tales of derring-do and getting our guys back, while studiously avoiding whether any of this needed to happen in the first place. Inside Combat Rescue never dwells on the sheer pointlessness of warfare, it’s all about how some guy got hit by a roadside bomb and they flew in and got him out of there. Even if (sometimes) they later die, but that’s always presented as noble sacrifice, as per usual.
The attempts to pitch an AFSOC-themed Thai Cave Rescue story to the producers on the Tour shows that this isn’t just a by-product of Hollywood looking for different kinds of military stories to tell. It’s the result of a conscious decision by the Pentagon to find new ways to make themselves look like a benevolent international rescue and disaster relief force, rather than the primary instrument of a global empire.
The Media Gets Onto the Special Operations Command Tour Story
Where this gets really fun is what happened after the AFSOC Tour. A bunch of thank you letters and emails were sent, and the Chief of Public Outreach and Policy reminded AFSOC staff to keep the Hollywood people in mind for JCOC – the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, the DOD’s longest-running public outreach and liaison program.
Someone at AFSOC public affairs uploaded some photos from the Tour to DVIDS, the Defence Visual Information Distribution Service. It’s basically a website where you can view all sorts of photo and video of military exercises, ceremonies and so on.
Two reporters – one from Air Force Times, the other a military correspondent for a local Florida paper – noticed the pictures and started making inquiries. Air Force Times wanted to know if the Tour was done in support of a specific production, and who paid for the trip. They were told that there was no specific production (which is essentially true) and that the Hollywood types paid for their own travel (which is also true, but misleading given all the other costs of the event).
The other inquiry resulted in a fairly extensive article in North West Florida Daily News, titled Hollywood Comes to Hurlburt. The article identifies two of the people present on the tour from the photos on DVIDS – Silicon Valley and Godzilla star Thomas Middleditch, and Nashville producer Wendy Calhoun. The remaining names are redacted in the documents, except in one place where the redacters were sloppy and one other name is revealed – Coco Francini, producer of the Call of Duty franchise films at Activision/Blizzard Studios.
However, most of the rest of the article comes from a statement issued by AFSOC public affairs, after being coordinated with Broshear. The journalist – Jim Thompson – asked a bunch of questions, and got a bunch of duplicitous responses.
Captain Farr emailed Broshear to ask for his responses to the questions, writing:
Good morning! We received a query from our local paper WRT the Hollywood visit last week. Most of the questions are straightforward/benign, but I wanted to coord with your team to see if you had any concerns… Unsure if we can openly discuss each of the participants and/or working projects.
Broshear’s responses are quite amusing, and worth reproducing and discussing in full:
(1) How was the visit arranged? Was it something that AFSOC offered to the Hollywood producers and writers, or was it something that the producers and writers asked AFSOC to do?
A: The visit to Hurlburt Field was part of ongoing Air Force outreach efforts‐‐for example, the military conducts base tours with civic leaders, community and industry leaders and educators as part of Public Affairs community relations efforts across the United States every day. This event was one of our annual industry leader tours of US Air Force units and missions. The group represented during this visit was made up of writers and producers from across the spectrum of television and film and led by our West Coast Public Affairs team.
Note, he doesn’t mention the Hollywood office and doesn’t really answer the question. The Tour was the entertainment liaison office’s idea, they invited people, they picked the base, they even chose more or less exactly what they wanted the producers to see. But this answer makes it sound like a routine, everyday tour. Which it wasn’t.
(2) How long were the producers at Hurlburt, and what did they do while at AFSOC?
A: The group spent a little over two days touring Hurlburt Field and its associated units. While at AFSOC they received base tour, mission briefings and interacted with Airmen during training operations.
No mention of explosions, despite him specifically asking (via Schirner) for as many explosions as possible.
(3) Were any of the producers or writers working on projects involving Special Operations personnel in any way? If so, can you say what the movies or documentaries are, and when they are expected to be released?
A: No, none of the group had any projects currently featuring AFSOC or Special Operations‐‐in fact, the goal of these types of events is to educate and inform key audiences about the mission of the United States Air Force and AFSOC, and was not conducted in support of any specific production.
While this is literally true, it completely avoids the issue of them pitching the Thai Cave Rescue story with the intention of shaping the narrative of any eventual film.
(4) What did AFSOC hope to gain from hosting the producers and writers? Were you looking for more accurate portrayals of Special Operations personnel in the movies? Was the visit successful from AFSOC’s viewpoint?
A: Great question‐‐yes, a more accurate portrayal of AFSOC personnel, missions and culture is always our goal with these types of tours. For example, in addition to showing industry and community leaders the types of equipment AFSOC personnel use during their operations (such as the CV‐22 Osprey or wheeled vehicles), we also provide briefings on Preservation of the Force and Family services we provide to care for families, current and wounded warriors on the AFSOC team. By showing how Airmen care and support one another on and off the battlefield, we illustrate the positive culture and camaraderie between Airmen and the Air Force family‐‐so yes, we provided a glimpse into Air Force life and the visit was very successful in giving participants a chance to meet and get to know ‘real‐life’ Airmen and gave an unvarnished look inside the AFSOC/Hurlburt Field mission.
‘Unvarnished’ is a curious way of saying ‘carefully curated for maximum desirable impact and perception management’.
(5) What were some of the things that the producers and writer were interested in? Weapons? Aircraft? Other kinds of equipment? Personnel?
A: The group of people on this tour were most interested in the men and women of AFSOC, not necessarily in the equipment or aircraft used in AFSOC operations. Some of the feedback we received was the most powerful moments of the tour were opportunities to meet and talk with Airmen about their experiences and learn about the support services provided to operators and their families (i.e. POTFF). In addition, briefings on our medical and support personnel were positively received as they recounted how medical personnel are ‘on the front line’ of care during operations. In this respect, much of what was discussed broke down misconceptions about various career fields and mission sets‐‐‐exactly the type of constructive dialogue we hope to generate from these types of tours.
Strangely, this list of things is not representative of the list of questions submitted by the Tour group ahead of time, which is included in the documents. Without getting into the specifics, this just isn’t an accurate, truthful answer, but a PR answer about a PR event.
(6) Who at AFSOC briefed the producers and writers, and what did they brief them about? What kinds of questions did the producers and writers have for their briefers? Did the producers and writers want to talk with regular Airmen, and if so, did they get a chance to do so? What kinds of questions did they have for Airmen?
A: There were a number of briefings on AFSOC missions, overview of how AFSOC fits into the Special Operations team, support services, medical operations, equipment and aircraft. Also included was a briefing on TSgt Chapman’s recent Medal of Honor decoration and how AFSOC supported the Thai Cave rescue effort. Questions centered on understanding how AFSOC integrates into the larger SOF effort and what day‐to‐day life is like for an AFSOC operator, pilot, support personnel and family member.
Again, avoiding just how important the Thai Cave Rescue was to them, and how that briefing was perhaps the most important part of the Tour.
(7) A photo submitted to DVIDS showed a number of the producers and writers around a table. Do you have IDs on those people, and can you provide them to me?
A: (WE DIDN’T KNOW YOU PUT A PHOTO ON DVIDS!)….No.
We’ll come back to this in a moment.
(8) The visit was described as an “immersion.” Can you describe what that means?
A: An immersion is a term for a focused event where participants get a holistic view of the Air Force unit. A “tour” may involve short stops at multiple units, locations or venues, while the informal term “immersion” typically denotes a longer, ‘deep dive’ focus on a specific unit or location.
He’s equivocating between ‘tour’ and ‘immersion’ since they don’t distinguish between these two in the documents. Even leaving that aside, he’s downplaying what they did here, and what the aims were.
After sending this response to Jim Thompson, Farr continued the dialogue with Broshear, who requested that they remove the photos from DVIDS that had led to the media inquiries. Farr referred this upstairs, and it seems nothing happened – I checked, and the photos are still there.
My guess is that once the cat was out of the bag, and the resulting article largely replicated their misleading responses to Thompson’s questions, they decided there was nothing to be gained by removing the photos from DVIDS. Nonetheless, the fact they misled this reporter and then tried to cover the whole thing up is a sign of a guilty conscience.
It also reveals, once more, how sensitive the DOD are about their propaganda operations in Hollywood. They only want ‘benign’ questions from friendly reporters, and see even moderately probing questions as necessitating some kind of cover-up.
As to the Thai Cave Rescue pitch – it was successful. There have been several films or documentaries made about the story, and another is coming out later this year directed by Ron Howard. But the most important is Tom Waller’s movie, which came out as The Cave in 2019 and Cave Rescue in 2021. Three of the main characters are from the US military – one Marine, and two from the US Air Force. Whether directly, indirectly or via the magic of cultural osmosis, they got their wish.