- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Hollywood movie “Act of Valor” — the nation’s No. 1 box-office attraction, starring real Navy SEALs — has put the spotlight on the U.S. military’s post-Sept. 11, 2001, love affair with the media.

Moviegoers are watching not just an action flick, but a revolution in military-media relations 20 years in the making. Operations that were once a no-go zone for reporters and film crews have emerged from the shadows to be seen in movies, documentaries and old-fashioned newsprint.

The military’s goal is simple: Win the public’s hearts and minds for the men and women fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in the war on terrorism.

Full access to troops has become so pervasive that it prompted an 85-year-old former soldier to rise at a Washington conference this month and lecture a four-star admiral: “Get the hell out of the media,” scolded retired Army Lt. Gen. James Vaught, who fought in three wars and commanded special-operations forces.

“American reporters have had unprecedented access and freedom to report exactly what they are seeing,” said Army Col. Steven Boylan, who placed journalists with combat units in the early days of the Iraq War.

“If we don’t tell the story, somebody else will, and they will probably get it wrong,” he said, summing up the military’s thinking about journalism.

The current cause celebre is “Act of Valor,” which rang up in $24.7 million in ticket sales over the weekend, according to studio estimates.

It is not just that the Pentagon helped advise the filmmakers. The film’s uniqueness lies in the fact that for the first time real, active-duty SEALs, who normally use their special skills anonymously, appear as themselves — although no names are used.

Embedded journalists

“This was a decision taken four years ago as a recruiting effort,” said retired Rear Adm. George Worthington, once the Navy’s top SEAL. “When ‘Top Gun’ came out, the sale of leather jackets went up. Any nerd could buy a leather jacket. I think that’s the same thing that is going to happen here.”

“Act of Valor” is not the armed forces’ first act in the war on terrorism. A sampling:

• The Pentagon allowed journalists Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington to embed with an Army platoon for 15 months as it fought “in the deadliest place on earth,” as their subsequent 2010 documentary, “Restrepo,” called the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.

An outpost named for a fallen medic, “Restrepo” presents stark scenes of war and downtime, as close as any filmmakers have gotten to war.

• The National Security Agency, the nation’s global eavesdropper, used to deny it existed.

But last year, it opened its Fort Meade, Md., operations center, archives and labs to a National Geographic film crew. Once-secret analysts and linguists, who listen to and interpret overheard conversations, sat down for on-camera interviews.

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