“12 Strong” is based on the TRUE story, of a 12-man team sent to Afghanistan mere WEEKS after 9/11. We sat down and talked with the two, real life, ex-special forces, whom the lead characters are based on, Bob Pennington and Mark Nutsch.
It’s always a special treat talking to the individuals at the source of a true story, especially when they are as inspiring and fascinating as these two are. Be sure to check out our review on “12 Strong” when it hits theaters on January 19th.
TCF: This film is based on a book called the “Horse Soldiers” by Doug Stanton. Were either of you involved in the writing of the book or fact-checking the film version of it?
Bob Pennington: Some of it. I talked to Doug a little more than Mark was able to, at least five or six hours probably talking to Doug. I think Mark was a little bit more limited in that because he was busy at the time.
Mark Nutsch: Doug had limited access to our team as I and some others had moved on to other assignments. After those initial interviews, we were not involved in Doug’s book for years. We’ve talked more with Doug since the book was published than we did prior. He provides a snapshot of a portion of our mission, but there is so much more to our mission.
Bob: Understand his picture was more strategic, and as you break down how we look at things, strategic, operational and then tactical, we are tactical on the ground. Operational runs in-between, and the strategic is the whole gambit. How he wrote the story, as you can see, is strategic.
Who’s playing who or who do you want to play you? Of course, he always wanted Thor, but I wanted Ryan Reynolds since I’m a little bit of a clown, but Michael Shannon did pretty good…
Mark: It’s a complex story, and it becomes hard to capture that in a clear, concise manner. Doug did a fair job at that. Trying to show the highlights of what these other teams did as well. All of us working towards Mazar Sharif and those northern provinces. There were other Special Forces teams in other parts of the country that did amazing things also. Some of them had books written about them, and some have not. Yet, they did amazing things that are known within our own community.
Bob: We had talked several times during this period when we knew that it had been purchased by Jerry [Bruckheimer]. Who’s playing who or who do you want to play you? Of course, he always wanted Thor [Chris Hemsworth], but I wanted Ryan Reynolds since I’m a little bit of a clown, but Michael Shannon did pretty good, pretty good. I talked to him for two or three days and he was a pretty thoughtful guy, honestly.
What struck me about the picture is that everyone, all the 12 men were singly focused. They were looking forward to this. Is that always the mentality of Special Forces or Green Berets, or was there something extra because of this particular circumstance?
Bob: No, this is the World Series, this is the Super Bowl. This is the pinnacle of what all Green Berets dream about. This is you are going into a country and you are conducting the one principal task of the nine principle tasks we have, unconventional warfare, and you are going to conduct this, which all Green Berets train for and are ready to do. It’s not just us, they’re all sitting there, hands on the rail, ready to go.
Mark: Day to day, there are Special Forces teams competing internally to get the best missions, to get the best training, to get the tough missions and deploy to probably 80 plus countries around the world right now, today.
Mark: We had been picked, by 15 September, we knew we were going. We had been picked, so then it was just fine-tuning some things, waiting for transportation. Waiting to understand what … We didn’t even know what that mission was, but we had been picked. Whatever that mission was, we were going to get it. We deployed out early on to a then-secret location. I assure you it was not as built up as portrayed.
We’re sleeping [on the ground] next to Soviet MiG bunkers and hangers…guarded by former MiG Special Forces troops that we had worked with the year prior.
Bob: As a matter of fact, our pallet came in. We pushed all our stuff off in a big, open area, dirt near [a former] Soviet base.
Mark: We’re sleeping [on the ground] next to Soviet MiG bunkers and hangers…guarded by former MiG Special Forces troops that we had worked with the year prior.
Bob: Yeah, so next morning we get up and we start making tents, our tents to start working out, because at that time, we had been given a mission of personal recovery. What they wanted, they wanted a team that could go in deep if one of the aircraft got hit by anti-aircraft fire and they went down.
They wanted someone to be able to go in there with a lot of firepower and get that team out … Who could move quick, be dropped off at one point and move to another point. We had been doing these exercises as a team, and we were very good at it.
Mark: It didn’t develop in the way that everybody thought it might. Then, right away we got … We had a few days without that, were waiting for a mission and then we got asked to do this mission and we had 48 hours from the time we accepted the mission to be ready to insert. There was, our entire operations order consisted of two pages.
Mark: Because it was so early, there’s nothing known. “We have to send someone in to figure it out.” We said, “We got it. Send us, Sir.” We briefed back to Colonel Mulholland and he approved our plan and sent us in.
Bob: It’s funny because you see comical reactions to some of the guys in the film. Of course, we get two to three pages of, “Here, this is all, we got to go do this,” and we’re looking it at and go, “All right, yeah, this is going to be fun. What you think, Mark?”
Mark: I mean, think of any question you’d want to know, there is no answer. No one in this room can provide that answer. No one outside that room has the connection to provide that answer, so we have to send people. The CIA team got matched up with us. They could help answer some more questions, but then their sheet of unknowns is just as long as ours so, “Here we go guys. Let’s get in there and we’ll figure it out.”
Bob: We RFI’d those guys to death. Request for Information. I mean, it was one after another, one after another. What helped us before going in though and even collecting that information, we had read about Afghanistan, the early days, we had read about Massoud and what he had done, what his characteristics were about, what direction he wanted to go, who could follow him, what were those tribes out there? Those were the things we thought that we could, if we could know some of that we’d have a headstart. That actually helped us too.
Mark: We were grabbing “National Geographic” magazines, spreading them out and the guys would find stuff, research stuff, lay it out, and every guy was expected to go through and learn how to read that stuff. I like the little scene, it’s a little thing but there’s a scene of after the insertion, one of the Sergeants, I think it’s the Team Sergeant, is reading a book called “The Bear Went Over the Mountain”.
That was one of the historic military archives that the U.S. military had put out about the Soviet-Afghan experience in the ’80s. That author had a unique opportunity to debrief actual Russian officers about their experience in Afghanistan. That was like the, “Here you go, read this book. That’s all we really know.” Guys were trying to frantically read them. They depict that in the film, if you catch it, you see it.
Bob: It’s perfect.
Both characters were very determined and very resolute in the mission in front of them and seemed to take different directions in how they achieved their determination and resolution. Part of that resolution is knowing who to trust in a situation like that. That level of trust is something that is not only inherent in what you guys do on a daily basis but it’s something that’s built and it’s not natural. Did your individual trusts in each other mature as well as it did in the movie or did it take time?
Bob: No, well here’s the thing. He’s already been on the team for two years. Then they had pulled him off of the team and then 9/11 happened. I actually, I wanted him back because I had just come to the team, but you’re looking at … A Special Forces Warrant, he can’t become a Warrant Officer, he can’t go through that course unless he’s an NCO or a senior NCO first. I had 14 years of experience and most of that as a Green Beret.
When we saw what happened and they said, “Hey, you guys might be aligned to do this mission,” I said, “Well, the first thing I need is, I need to plus up my team back to 12.” “Okay, we’ll give you a Captain.” I said, “No, I need Mark Nutsch back. I just lost him … I’ve got have him back.” I said, “He knows the team, he knows the [Standard Operating Orocedures] why would I send somebody back up? I would rather have him back here on this operational attachment.” They looked at me and went, “That makes sense.”
Mark: I’d been with the team for two years already, and we had deployed half a dozen times to the Middle East, to Jordan and Kuwait and Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kohistan.
Mark: Had about as much experience as a Special Forces Officer could have in preparing for this mission. I had served in the Ranger Regimen has a Ranger platoon leader prior to that, and had been an Infantry Officer before going to the Rangers.
Bob: I came to the team in ’99, so Mark and I actually, we did one, two overseas long tours, and we did several CONUS tours in the U.S., so we, there was a lot of training we’d already conducted together.
Mark: More to your point, I think, is the team already trusted each other because we had been through some pretty grueling training already where we had split down. We had had our previous deployments. We had split down into two or three man cells. We were comfortable if we went as a solo operator. We’d been cross-trained on all the radios, the medical trauma, things like that, calling in close air support, and felt thoroughly trained.
Our team had an incredible amount of experience. Our average years of service was eight.
Mark: Bob already told you he had 14. We were not a young team. Our average age was 32.
Bob: 11 of the 12 families, team members were married.
Mark: 10 of us had two or more kids. Just incredible amount of experience. We had nine qualified snipers.
Bob: I was one of them too, yeah.
Mark: There was some adjustments on the ground because we had to adapt to these forces, the situation. We learned quickly, we don’t need to carry all this gear that we are because it’s going to result in back injuries or things like that that are going to hurt, so I learned how to tailor my gear. I’m using muscles, even as a physically fit, green beret. I am using muscles riding a horse that makes it a little painful.
Bob: I can attest to this and I’ll tell you why. This is a good story because the scene where I’m hellbent … I made it look better than that. I had to save face, seems a little like I’m going to slide down there, hold me up and stuff like that.
You’re talking about a guy who bench pressed at that time 360 and leg squatted about 450, but what he said was, now I’m squeezing my knees and holding in my feet, and the stirrups are high, they had to have short legs. The next thing I know it, I blow out my back. It was different muscle groups.
Mark: Yeah, and so we’re way left in that information cycle and that need for information, and we were it along with a handful of other teams that were on the ground in the country, that was it. You’re having strategic level talks with our Afghans about the larger Taliban in Al Qaeda structure and organization, and where they’re at.
Then you’re like, “Hey, we got this village over here. We need to attack that village and defeat that Taliban force and move on across the valley to get to Mazar Sharif.”
Bob: Every man on that ODA acted as an investor, they actually did the entire time.
Mark: We call it, everybody had to work from a Commander’s intent. You couldn’t, no one in the rear, defined as 100 miles away in K2 or 5,000 miles away in Washington or Fort Bragg or in Tampa, no one can figure this out. It has to be the guys on the ground using their problem-solving skills, using their understanding of the situation.
Working from a Commander’s intent, what I’m talking about is we know our mission. Our mission is to conduct unconventional warfare in an area that is geographically undefined, initially. I could go anywhere in the country with my counterpart. What’s his plan? What’re his capabilities?
Bob: Yeah, there’s no front, there’re no frontlines.
I started capitalizing everything, which is yelling, you know. “Send the saddles now! Where’re my saddles!?” Of course, we get out and guess what? We get to K2, “Hey, we got some saddles for you.” “Are you kidding me? We’re home. We’re done.” That was crazy.
Mark: I grew up on a cattle ranch in Kansas, rodeoing through high school and college. Who knew how critical the ability to ride and understand the horsemanship and the maneuver warfare on horseback. I’d been an amateur history buff from my training through the military, of reading about the American Civil War.
We had walked the battlefields at Gettysburg, I had studied the calvary commanders from that day for some of my military development assignments and read books, written papers. Who knew that that was going to be so critical in this 9-11. I’m learning this as I see this. Immediately I’m like, “Okay.”
One of the things that stumped us early on is Dostum wanted to attack at 2:00 p.m. in the afternoon. All right, we’ve got all the latest and greatest night vision, we fight at night, we do all these things.
Bob: We own the night. You know that.
Mark: “We should attack at dawn,” right? Why 2:00 p.m. in the afternoon? We have essentially an 18th or a 19th century force, we are greatly outnumbered, outgunned, and we have to preserve that force. That force is either on horseback or walking. It takes us that long to then remain in hiding and then cover that distance to get close, undetected to the enemy, and then start the music with an air strike or whatever we’re going to do to open up that attack on our terms.
We’re outnumbered, so if we win, then through that initial engagement, it’s going to be nightfall, which causes confusion for our enemy as well. We can withdraw the force and preserve it or continue to exploit our gains. It took some adapting of that horse mounted warfare, realizing I now have satellite capable radios that allows my Sergeants to disperse across the whole battlefield.
Bob: We didn’t necessarily learn how to ride from him. I mean basically, really, you get on a horse, if you’re in it a couple of times, you somewhat can figure it out. I mean, you can, but the biggest thing that he helped us on was their stirrups were small because they had short legs.
We ended up, Mark showed us how to actually cut those down, retie them and lengthen them. Do some of the bridle work because that did not work and most of those would tear. The underbelly straps, they were tearing, so we were using one inch tubular nylon that would come off the drops. You would cut that off and sit there and tie these things.
Mark: We were trying to tackle these saddles, their saddles were worn out. Now we’re borrowing an Afghan horse and you got a 230 pound Green Beret with another 50 pounds of lightweight gear stepping up. The stirrup straps would break at the most inopportune time.
The cinch straps would break or tear, so we’re using nylon webbing from our parachute drops to repair the saddles and make stirrups that are lengthened out so we’re not injuring our guys. We requested trail riding saddles to be airdropped in right away, and so somebody’s scrambling to purchase saddles in the United States and get them delivered.
Bob: Which that was a joke. I mean that was … You know how many times I … Then I started capitalizing everything, which is yelling, you know. “Send the saddles now! Where’re my saddles!?” Of course, we get out and guess what? We get to K2, “Hey, we got some saddles for you.” “Are you kidding me? We’re home. We’re done.” That was crazy.