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'12 Strong' story: First, they conquered the horses they rode, then the Taliban

Mark Nutsch, left, and Bob Pennington, visiting American Freedom Distillery in St. Petersburg on Thursday, say the makers of the film 12 Strong got the spirit of the Green Berets right. The movie, opening next week, is based on the story of the two men and the commando colleagues who helped recapture Afghanistan from the Taliban. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Published Jan. 5, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Mark Nutsch and Bob Pennington, Army Green Berets, were assigned to help Afghan fighters take back their nation from the Taliban during the weeks after the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

One thing no one thought about, though, was how to get around the mountainous terrain of northern Afghanistan. The locals, it seems, rode horses.

Nutsch, who now lives in Tampa, grew up on a ranch, performed in rodeos and was an expert rider. Pennington, who rode once or twice in his life, not so much.

Yet they and 10 other members of the 5th Special Forces Group's Operational Detachment Alpha 595 survived painful saddles, bad-tempered horses, wary allies, harsh elements and an overwhelming enemy force to help defeat the Taliban in less than two months.

They earned fame as the Horse Soldiers, memorialized in a statue overlooking ground zero at Liberty Park in New York.

Now, 17 years later, their story — or a fictionalized piece of it — is told in 12 Strong, a major Hollywood movie opening in theaters Jan. 19. An invitation-only screening is scheduled in Tampa today and again Monday.

Nutsch is portrayed by Australian actor Chris Hemsworth, who gained film fame as a hammer-wielding Norse legend.

"I never imagined," Nutsch said, "that one day, Thor would play me in a movie."

• • •

The battle plan was audacious: Fly in specially outfitted Chinook helicopters from Uzbekistan, over the Hindu Kush mountains, to link up with an anti-Taliban faction of fighters known as the Northern Alliance.

The mission was to assess their capabilities, train and advise them on how to work together, and use guerilla tactics, known as unconventional warfare in military parlance, to defeat the Taliban.

The Islamic fundamentalist group had taken over Afghanistan and given shelter to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida forces, who carried out the 9/11 attacks a month earlier.

There was a lot of planning packed into the 48 hours before go-time, said Nutsch, then a major and the team's ground commander. But none of it involved what would eventually become the enduring symbol of the mission.

"The horse factor not fully known and understood or conveyed," Nutsch said in an interview Thursday during a visit to American Freedom Distillery in St. Petersburg, owned by some fellow retired commandos.

The team was thinking small trucks at the time.

"We thought we were going to go in on foot, link up with the indigenous forces and maybe ride around in something like a Toyota Hilux," said Pennington, at the time a chief warrant officer 4.

Instead, the men of ODA 595, part of an assault team known as Task Force Dagger, stepped out of the helicopters into another culture — even another time, recalled history-buff Nutsch.

"You are in this historical place, with its rugged terrain, the legend, so to speak, of Afghanistan and history, and riding horseback through that terrain like people or formations had throughout history," said Nutsch, now in his mid-40s. "I had read about the history of the Mongols and horse-mounted nomadic tribesmen. It interested me long before going into Special Forces."

Unfortunately for the Green Berets, taller and heavier than the Afghans, the bridle gear was from another time, as well.

"A lot of us suffered back pain, spasms, things like that, just from riding like that," said Pennington, 56, who lives in Atlanta.

The horses didn't do so well, either. As a rite of passage among horsemen everywhere, the newcomers were given the worst of the lot, often smaller horses not used to carrying the weight of an American soldier and all his kit.

"I am crushing the horse," said Pennington, at the time 225 pounds of muscle with 50 pounds of gear on his back. "He is so pissed off, he is reaching back, trying to bite me because his legs are buckling."

Sharing hardships helped the Americans and their allies bond. Initially, they were wary of each other. They drew closer still because the men of ODA 595, unlike most U.S. troops, left their body armor behind for helicopter weight restrictions.

"Not coming in like looking like Starship Troopers with body armor when the Afghans didn't have any sends a very different message from their perspective," said Nutsch.

The Taliban and al-Qaida had tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery and other weapons left behind by the Soviet Union when it gave up its campaign to win Afghanistan. They had the Green Berets and their allies outgunned.

But traveling on horseback enabled troops to outmaneuver the enemy. The jihadis found themselves in the same position as the Russian army did — stuck in heavy, clanking vehicles with limited room to move. Air Force commandos joined the team to call in airstrikes and ODA 595 helped rout the Taliban.

Facing combined assaults elsewhere in the country, the Taliban surrendered.

• • •

The movie tells just a short portion of that fight, say Nutsch and Pennington, who are working on a nonfiction book to tell the larger story.

"This is a fictional portrayal — don't lose sight of that," Nutsch said. "We were not able to work as closely with the production as we would have preferred, but they did a pretty good job from what we saw of portraying the main players and the spirit of Special Forces in that post-9/11 era."

The men have appeared as themselves in the CNN documentary Legion of Brothers and joke that they prefer their own portrayals to those of the professionals — even though the man playing Pennington has been nominated twice for a best supporting-actor Oscar.

"Michael Shannon did a pretty good job playing me," he said. "But I still think I am better."

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman

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