Navy Chief Shows NFL Film Crew the Ropes in Afghanistan
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 4, 2002 Chief Petty Officer Johnny Bivera recently returned to Afghanistan, not with the U.S. Navy as he had the first time, but with National Football League Films.
Bivera, a 16-year veteran Navy photojournalist, accompanied a five- member film crew on commercial flights from Philadelphia to Zurich, Switzerland, then onto New Delhi, India, before finally arriving in Kabul, Afghanistan. The chief served as the crew's military liaison and was one of several service members the film crew would feature during a series of profiles to be broadcast during regular and post-season NFL games.
Dubbed "American Postcards," the profiles are scheduled to begin airing on Sept. 5 with the Giants-49ers game on ESPN. The spots will also run during NFL games broadcast on CBS, Fox and ABC.
Pentagon spokeswoman Allison Barber said NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue came up with the idea in early August. "About 120 million people watch an NFL game each weekend," she said. "Our goal is to allow men and women across America to be able to feel a connection to our military members."
Defense public affairs officials chose Bivera, who had recently arrived at Navy headquarters at the Pentagon, to escort the film crew. His photographs from Afghanistan had appeared often on www.defendAmerica.gov and other Web sites while he was in Afghanistan with the USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Battle Group.
One of the first things the chief discovered was movie crews don't travel light. "The gear filled two large vans," he said. "They had more than 50 cases and bags of equipment, and the 16 mm and 35 mm film stock had to be specially handled.
"The hardest part of the trip was the airports," Bivera said. Security concerns, customs -- local officials track what comes in and what goes out of their countries. In New Delhi, he said, the film was held up in customs until just minutes before their flight to Kabul.
From New Delhi, Bivera and the crew traveled aboard one of Afghan Airlines' two DC-9 aircraft. "The other was broken, so we were on their only flying aircraft," Bivera said. Boarding the plane, he noted, they entered another culture.
"Normally, you get on an airplane and the air conditioning is running and people are orderly," the chief said. "It wasn't like that. Right away, you felt the heat from inside the plane that had been sitting on the tarmac for hours. It became a sweatbox. The ticket said we had assigned seats, but they were more concerned about just getting everybody in a seat so they could lock it up and fly out."
Bivera sat next to an Afghan diplomat who expressed optimism about the interim government's goals for his country. He also expressed gratitude for the U.S.-led campaign to oust the Taliban regime.
"He really wanted to make it known that he appreciated the fact that we were there doing what we were doing," Bivera said. "He said, 'It was the first time in 23 years that we've been able to make a push for our own people.'"
While Bivera knew the ropes about being in a combat zone, it was the first time for the film crew. He said the civilians were very happy they had somebody from the military with them.
"I would say NFL Films chose the right people," the chief said. "They were a very seasoned and hardened crew for this type of job. They were positive and eager to accomplish what they had to do. They were very adaptive to the situation."
The crew arrived in Kabul on a "sandstorm-clouded day," Bivera said. "There was a lot of light, but it was very diffused by what we call 'moon dust' in the air. They found that very fascinating and surreal just as I did the first time I saw it. It added to the atmosphere of their trip."
Inside the terminal, he continued, there was no electricity. After an hour or so of funneling into one line to go through passport control, the crew entered a pitch-black baggage claim area. "Everybody was reaching into their bags for flashlights."
"It was a big moment for the Afghan baggage handlers," Bivera noted. "It's not every day you have six people show up with, like, 60 pieces of baggage." Finally, all the gear was secured in U.S. military vehicles, he said, and the NFL crew was "very excited and very happy that we'd made it."
For the next nine days, the crew worked out of Bagram Air Base, near Kabul, and traveled to various sites to interview U.S. forces. They accompanied civil affairs officers and other troops on missions in the surrounding area.
"That allowed me to document a lot more of the local people," said Bivera, whose Afghanistan portfolio primarily covers Navy and Marine forces at sea and conducting ground operations at the start of Operation Enduring Freedom.
At first, he said, he thought the crew was overly ambitious in what they expected to accomplish.
"I thought there is no way they're going to be able to do this," he said. "But, this was one of the times in your life where you meet a group of professionals that are so good at what they do, and they have this vision of what they want to accomplish, and they don't let anything get in the way of making that happen.
"At the same time," he continued, "they're coming up with all these great ideas of how they're going to tell the story with what they have to work with. That was fascinating to watch. You had a couple of visionary minds working on this and then the support group was right there ready to make it happen."
Wherever they went, Bivera said, the crew had to explain who they were and why they were there. "They'd say, "We're the NFL Films crew and we're going to do documentaries about you guys." They'd explain that the NFL wants to dedicate time during the football season to the military people who are serving overseas and at home.
"Once the troops realized that this was a working film crew that was there for them, the morale was just incredible," he said. "This wasn't a news crew that was going to come in, do their thing and leave, and you don't know what they're going to say. Here, they were doing it for us, and they had a message to bring back home. Even the people who weren't involved would come up to me and say, 'I really appreciate what these guys are doing.'"
The message the profiles will carry couldn't be more important, according to the chief. "They'll let the people of America know and remember that we are at war and we have people fighting this war -- that they are your brothers and sisters, mothers, daughters, fathers and sons that are over there."