How Accurate is 12 Strong? The True Story of the Real Horse Soldiers vs the Movie
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- August 11th, 2018
Note: The ranks of the soldiers above reflect their ranks at the time of the 2001 mission, not their current ranks or their ranks when they retired.
Questioning the Story:Was Mark Nutsch really working in a staff position (desk job) at the time of 9/11?
Yes. Mark Nutsch, portrayed by Chris Hemsworth in the movie, had recently been promoted out of the job he loved, serving in the field as a Special Forces team captain. The 12 Strong true story confirms that he had been given an administrative staff position in the Fifth Group Headquarters. He knew that he had to put in his time shuffling papers in order to move up in rank. Like in the movie, Doug Stanton’s book Horse Soldiers describes Nutsch going to Colonel Bowers after the attacks to ask to be placed with his team again. “Sir,” he said. “I need to be back on my team.”
Like Chris Hemsworth’s character in the movie, Capt. Mark Nutsch had recently been promoted to an administrative desk job prior to 9/11.
Were some of the Special Forces soldiers from the team on a training exercise the morning of September 11th?
Yes. In exploring how accurate 12 Strong is, we learned that some members of the ODA 595 Special Forces team had been involved in a nighttime training exercise along the Cumberland River. They were forced to spend the night on the river bank after dense fog made it impossible to navigate their Zodiac inflatable boats. In the movie, another team member arrives to pick them up and tells them about the attacks. In real life, they learned of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center over the truck’s radio on their way back to the base. -Horse Soldiers book
Were the Horse Soldiers really the first U.S. troops to be sent to Afghanistan after 9/11?
Yes. In response to the September 11, 2001 attacks, the elite U.S. Special Forces unit, Operational Detachment-Alpha 595 (ODA 595 for short), was one of three teams of Special Forces soldiers sent into Afghanistan. At first, their mission was one of personnel recovery, tasked with rescuing any pilots shot down during the air war in Afghanistan. However, the mission quickly changed and became about convincing ethnic leaders (some were more similar to warlords) to join forces with them to fight their common enemy: the Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies.
The CIA provided intel on which ethnic leaders to work with, including Afghan General Rashid Dostum. Once the ODA 595 linked up with Dostum, they were to “render the area unsafe for the Taliban and terrorist activity,” says Green Beret Mark Nutsch, portrayed by Chris Hemsworth in the movie. -The Fayetteville Observer
Why was the ODA 595 team chosen for the Afghanistan mission?
ODA 595 was an experienced, mature team of Green Berets that had recently worked with special operations forces in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan’s northern neighbor. The team had been working together for two years and the average age was 32 years old. Each member had an average of eight years experience and most had combat experience in either Desert Storm, Kosovo or Somalia. As for team leader Mark Nutsch, the real-life counterpart to the film’s main character portrayed by Chris Hemsworth, he had no actual combat experience prior to the mission. His lack of combat experience is pointed out in the movie. However, he had been deployed in the Middle East and around the globe. -The Fayetteville Observer
A photo of the ODA 595 team, aka the real Horse Soldiers. Mark Nutsch (Chris Hemsworth in the movie) is in the front row, second in from the right, and Bob Pennington (Michael Shannon in the film) is in a blue jacket on the far left torward the back.
How soon after 9/11 did the Special Forces team arrive in Afghanistan?
Originally, the Special Forces team, ODA 595, was supposed to be in Afghanistan on September 14, just three days after the attacks. However, at least 3 false starts delayed their deployment for almost a month. The 12 Strong true story reveals that they finally left Kentucky on October 5, 2001. -The Fayetteville Observer
Does the movie really tell the “declassified true story of the Horse Soldiers?”
Yes, but the tagline is a bit of an exaggeration. The movie isn’t revealing anything new. The mission stopped being a secret on November 16, 2001, a mere two months after 9/11. It was then that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld showed the press an image of a bearded Green Beret on a horse and explained that the man was directing air strikes against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in northern Afghanistan. The mission was also chronicled in Doug Stanton’s 2009 book, Horse Soldiers, on which the movie is based. Despite knowledge of the mission being available to the public, it had remained largely unheard of until the book. People still walk by the 16-foot bronze statue of a Green Beret on horseback overlooking Ground Zero and are unaware of its significance (the Horse Soldiers monument is pictured near the bottom of this page).
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld revealed this photo to the public on November 16, 2001. It shows U.S. soldiers with General Dostum and other Afghan fighters riding on horseback in the Darya Suf Valley (Note: We added the arrows to specify which are U.S. Soldiers).
Did most of the 12 men have families?
Yes. While researching to answer the question, “How accurate is 12 Strong?” we discovered that all but one of the 12 Horse Soldiers depicted in the movie were married and 10 of them had at least two kids. “They were very mature, very family-orientated,” Bob Pennington said. “And to me, that was a plus when you got saddled with a mission that was going to be as complex as this one.” Pennington is portrayed by Michael Shannon in the movie. -The Fayetteville Observer
How many of the real Horse Soldiers are actually mentioned by name in the film?
Only two of the characters in the film actually have the same names as their real-life Green Beret counterparts. Both of the named Green Berets are commanding officers, John Mulholland and Max Bowers. As for why the names were changed, one article stated that the studio did not want to have to pay all of the real-life people for the rights to use their names. However, when the 2009 Horse Soldiers book was being written, Mark Nutsch had requested that his name be changed to protect his identity, as was the case with most of the other Horse Soldiers. However, it’s hard to imagine that was the case with the 12 Strong movie, since Nutsch has become a fairly well-known public figure. Others have speculated that the filmmakers changed some of the names to diversify the Special Forces team for the movie, but that has not been confirmed. -SOFREP
Doug Stanton’s book Horse Soldiers provided the basis for the movie.
Was Mark Nutsch’s wife pregnant when he left for the mission?
In the movie, Chris Hemsworth’s character’s wife is not pregnant. However, the real Amy Nutsch, the wife of Mark Nutsch, was six months pregnant at the time of the September 11 attacks. They also had two boys, then ages 4 and 3 (in the movie, they have a little girl). The baby was born early while Mark was in Afghanistan.
Interestingly, actor Chris Hemsworth’s real-life wife, Elsa Pataky, portrays his character’s wife in the movie. “We had seven years of rehearsal for that relationship,” says Hemsworth. -BUILD Series
Did Mark Nutsch carry a piece of steel with him from the World Trade Center?
Not exactly. The 12 Strong movie has Chris Hemsworth’s character (Mark Nutsch in real life) being given the candy-bar-sized piece of metal by Colonel Mulholland. In Doug Stanton’s book Horse Soldiers, it was Colonel Max Bowers, portrayed by Rob Riggle, who brought a piece of steel with him from the World Trade Center to Afghanistan. Payback was certainly on the minds of some members of the team, while others focused primarily on the mission at hand. In the book, Bowers had planned to give the piece of metal to Afghan General Dostum and warlord Atta Muhammad Noor, if needed, to bind them in their common fight against the Taliban.
Later, several months after the Taliban fell, the special operations teams returned to Mazar-i-Sharif to bury the piece of the World Trade Center. They placed it in a body bag and lowered it into the ground. Images of them doing this can be seen below and in Alex Quade’s short documentary Horse Soldiers of 9/11.
In real life, Colonel Max Bowers (left) was the one who carried the piece of metal from the World Trade Center with him. He is portrayed by Rob Riggle in the movie.
Was the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base in Uzbekistan as built up as it is in the movie?
No. The then-secret Uzbekistan air base, also known as K2, is depicted as a sort of tent city in the movie. The real-life base wasn’t built up and amounted to little more than a series of Soviet-era bunkers. “There was nothing built up,” Mark Nutsch said. “We slept on the ground the first couple of nights.” Nutsch is portrayed by Chris Hemsworth in the movie and renamed Mitch Nelson. It was at K2 that their team received new orders, after which it was no longer a mission about personnel recovery. -The Fayetteville Observer
How many Special Forces teams were sent into Afghanistan immediately following 9/11?
In addition to ODA 595, three other teams were selected. However, one was dropped due to a lack of confidence in the team. Following several weather delays, ODA 595 and ODA 555 flew into Afghanistan on MH-47 helicopters on October 19, 2001, 39 days after Al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center. Mark Nutsch’s team, ODA 595, was dropped in Dehi, roughly 100 miles from the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. They linked up with Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum and his Uzbek fighters. ODA 555 was inserted next in the east in the Panjshir Valley, with the mission of working with ethnic Tajik fighters. ODA 595 followed by ODA 555 were the first two teams to have boots on the ground in Afghanistan following 9/11. -The Fayetteville Observer
Was Afghan General Abdul Rashid Dostum really a shaky character with a bloody reputation?
Yes. Dostum, a former Communist general, had a reputation for violence. What made working with him particularly dangerous was that he was known for switching sides during several conflicts with Afghanistan. “We knew nothing about these guys,” retired Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland said. “All of these guys have blood on their hands. None of these guys are clean actors.” William Fichtner portrays Mulholland in the movie and Homeland‘s Navid Negahban plays General Dostum. In real-life, Dostum is currently the Vice President of Afghanistan, as stated prior to the movie’s end credits. -The Fayetteville Observer
Was there really a strong chance that they wouldn’t survive the mission?
The movie finds the soldiers being told that there is a good chance they won’t survive the mission. Later, one is shown penning a goodbye letter to his family. The risk they were taking was indeed that great. “They didn’t expect us to survive,” Mark Nutsch said. “The threat of capture, torture was very real.” Furthermore, as shown in the movie, they were grossly outnumbered. There were roughly 200 paid Afghan soldiers under General Dostum’s command and an undetermined number of part-time militia. They were potentially facing about 50,000 Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
Also, there was hardly any assurance that the team would be safe with the Afghan fighters they were working alongside. And if they became overwhelmed by the enemy, little could be done to save them since they would be roughly nine hours away from help. “For all of our teams, the risk was extraordinary,” Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland said. “If they got in trouble, there was very little I could do and nothing I could do quickly. We accepted a huge amount of risk.” -The Fayetteville Observer
Team leader Capt. Mark Nutsch (right) shakes the hand of an Afghan soldier. His team and the Afghan fighters had to gain each others trust as they fought alongside one another.
Why did they become known as the Horse Soldiers?
The soldiers on the U.S. Special Forces teams were used to state-of-the-art warfare. However, the rugged Afghan terrain forced them to adopt the rudimentary practices of the Afghan horse soldiers. This included using horses to navigate the mountainous region. Officials had been unaware that Dostum’s army still used a horse cavalry. It was indeed as much of a surprise to the real team as it is in the movie.
Did Mark Nutsch really have prior experience on horseback?
Yes. Chris Hemsworth’s character’s real-life counterpart, Mark Nutsch, had worked on a cattle ranch when he was younger and was one of the few members of the 12-man team who had experience riding horses. He also used to compete in collegiate rodeos. Like in the 12 Strong movie, Nutsch helped teach the other team members how to ride. Fittingly, a lot of the actors in the movie had very little or no experience on a horse as well, so there wasn’t very much acting needed to convey the team’s lack of experience riding horses. -Den of Geek
Captain Mark Nutsch on horseback in Afghanistan. Inset: Chris Hemsworth as Nutsch’s onscreen counterpart.
Did one of the Green Berets really suffer from back pain?
Yes, Bob Pennington, portrayed by Michael Shannon in the movie, had a herniated disc and suffered from excruciating back pain during the mission. He did have trouble getting off his horse and like in the movie, the medic gave him something for the pain.
During our investigation into the 12 Strong true story, we also learned that Sergeant First Class Joe Jung, the team’s medic and a sniper, broke his back when he was thrown from his horse, which fell and then slid on top of him. He gave himself shots of morphine to handle the pain and carried on.
Was the Afghan leader Gen. Dostum worried that America would withdraw its support if one of the Special Forces soldiers was killed or badly wounded?
Yes, and that’s why Gen. Dostum kept the American soldiers back from the front lines at first. It’s true that Dostum said that he would rather see 500 of his own men killed than see a scratch on an American soldier. Mark Nutsch and his team had to gain Dostum’s trust and convince him that 9/11 had changed things. America was fully committed to defeating the Taliban and ousting them from power.
Was the American born Taliban John Walker Lindh among those captured in the battle for Mazar-i-Sharif?
Yes. John Walker Lindh was among those who surrendered in the battle for Mazar-i-Sharif and his story is included in the Horse Soldiers book but not in the movie. The prisoners were not properly searched by members of the Northern Alliance before they were crammed onto trucks and the troops had not realized the American Lindh was among them. He told them his name was Abdul Hamid. He was later shot in the leg when the makeshift prison he was in became the scene of a violent Taliban uprising.
American Taliban John Walker Lindh, pictured after his capture and before (inset), was among those who the Horse Soldiers helped capture in the battle for Mazar-i-Sharif.
How long did it take to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan?
It took just a few months for American and Afghan forces to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan; thus ousting them from power. The actions of the ODA 595 helped lay the groundwork for that victory. Like in the 12 Strong movie, the real Horse Soldiers were able to liberate Afghanistan’s fourth largest city, Mazar-i-Sharif, in just three weeks. Mazar-i-Sharif was the stronghold for the Taliban’s northern force and once liberated, the northern provinces quickly fell. From there, American and Afghan forces would liberate Kabul in the east, Herat in the west, Kandahar in the south, and Jalalabad, resulting in the Afghan forces taking control of the country from the Taliban. In all, less than 100 Special Forces soldiers toppled the Taliban government. Military historians have called it one of the most successful unconventional warfare campaigns in U.S. history. -Legion of Brothers
Did any of the 12 Horse Soldiers represented in the movie die during the real-life mission? (Warning: Major Spoiler)
Here, the 12 Strong movie and the true story match up. None of the 12 soldiers died during the 2001 Afghanistan mission. It’s a miracle of sorts given what they faced, a feat that the movie does a good job conveying.
What do the real-life Horse Soldiers think of the movie?
“We think they got it, they got the spirit of the Special Forces team in the post-9/11 moment in American history,” said team leader Mark Nutsch, portrayed by Chris Hemsworth in the movie. Despite the movie accurately capturing the soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan, the real-life heroes have said that the movie does take artistic liberties, adding drama and portraying certain events out of order. Nutsch said that the movie leaves out a key river that the men often had to swim across in the freezing cold water with their horses, one of the bigger obstacles they faced on the mission. -ABC News
Mark Nutsch and Chris Hemsworth at an AFC playoff game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on January 14, 2018.
Had one of the actors really been a Marine who served in Afghanistan in 2001?
Yes. Rob Riggle, who portrays Lieutenant Colonel Max Bowers in the movie (the commander of the 3rd Battalion 5th Special Forces Group) served in Afghanistan as a Marine in 2001. Ironically, he actually served under the man he is portraying. “When I went to Afghanistan, I reported to Lieutenant Colonel Max Bowers. So, I worked for him, directly,” says Riggle. “I was on his command element and worked with him in November of 2001 in Afghanistan. So we haven’t even taken the southern part of the country and we’re still working with the Northern Alliance. I’m playing Lieutenant Colonel Max Bowers in the movie. So, I’m playing my old boss in the movie.” -KTLA 5
Riggle, now an actor known for his comedic performances, gave 23 years of total service to the military. He had been assigned to a Manhattan reserve unit at the time of 9/11 and spent part of September 2001 cleaning up debris from the World Trade Center.
Actor Rob Riggle, who portrays Col. Max Bowers in the movie, is a veteran who served 23 years in the Marines. Riggle is pictured in Kosovo on the left and helping to clean up at Ground Zero in the days after 9/11 (Riggle is the one in camo wearing a mask).
Were any of the real soldiers involved in the filming?
Yes. As we explored the accuracy of 12 Strong, we discovered that a group of both currently-serving and retired U.S. special operators, including Mark Nutsch (Chris Hemsworth onscreen), were involved in the making of the movie, mainly to make sure that the filmmakers didn’t veer too far from the true story, specifically in how they represented the soldiers. -NationalInterest.org
Who is the Horse Soldiers monument at Ground Zero based on?
The Horse Soldiers monument in New York City is not based on any one person. No one individual was the model for the statue. “I created the face without the use of models or photos,” said artist Douwe Blumberg, who designed the statue in collaboration with Mark Nutsch. It was put on display across from Ground Zero in 2012.
Horse Soldiers Documentary & Related Videos
Infiltrate the 12 Strong true story further by watching the documentary and videos below.