As part of 12 Strong’s Phoenix press day on January 8, Electric Bento, sat down with Captain Mark Nutsch, ODA-595 Special Forces Captain and Chief Warrant Officer Bob Pennington. Their names were changed for the film because their story was still classified at the time the script was written. These two officers were on the front lines of our initial incursion into Afghanistan following the events of 9/11 and are the subjects of the new film, 12 Strong, which opens today. You can read our three-star review here.
Here are Captain Nutsch (MN) and Chief Pennington’s (BP) thoughts . . . .
On Doug Stanton’s book, Horse Soldier:
BP: I talked to Doug more than Mark was able to, at least five or six hours talking to Doug.
MN: Doug had limited access to our team as [members] went on other assignments. After the initial interviews, we weren’t as involved in Doug’s book. We’ve talked more with Doug since the book was published. He provides a snapshot of a portion of our mission, but there is no much more to our mission.”
BP: His picture was strategic, which is the whole gambit. As you break down how we look at things, we look at strategic, operations, tactical. We were tactical, on the ground.
MN: Who knew that Doug’s book was gonna turn into a feature film. It’s incredible, humbling and honoring.
On which actor was going to play which real-life figure:
BP: We had talked several times when we knew the book had been purchased by Jerry [Bruckheimer] about who do you want to play you. Of course, he [Mark] wanted Thor. I wanted Ryan Reynolds. I’m a bit of a clown.
On Michael Shannon:
BP: Michael Shannon did a pretty good job. I talked to him for two or three days. He was a pretty thoughtful guy.
On the team’s focus, the mission and Special Forces officer’s mentality:
BP: This is the World Series, the Super Bowl, the pinnacle of what all Green Berets dream about. We were there to conduct one principle task of the nine principle tasks Special Forces has: Unconventional Warfare.
MN: Yes, there is the historic fact that was not lost on us. This is 9/11. Day to day there are Special Forces teams competing to get the best missions . . . and to deploy around the world.
On the deployment:
MN: We knew we were going by 15 September; we knew we had been picked. We didn’t know what the mission was.
On conditions and logistics on arrival:
MN: I assure you it wasn’t as built up as it is in the movie. Our location was secret at the time. We were housed in a former Soviet MiG bunker and we’re sleeping on the ground.
BP: As a matter of fact, our pallet came in, we pushed all our stuff off on to the dirt in a huge open area, around the mountains.
On the developing mission:
MN: It [the situation] didn’t develop in the way we thought it might, and we got asked to do this mission. We had 48 hours from when we were given the mission to when we were inserted. Our entire operations orders’ consisted of only two pages. Because it was so early there was nothing known. We have to send someone in to figure it out.
On the Intelligence:
MN: Think of any question you’d want to know, there is no answer. So we got matched up with the CIA, they could help answer some questions, but their sheet of unknowns is just as long as ours. “Let’s get in there and we’ll figure it out.”
BP: What helped us before going in, we had read about Afghanistan from the early days, we had read about Massoud and what he had done, what his characteristics were all about. Those are the things that we thought we could use and have a head start.
MN: We didn’t fully understand the dynamics, the who’s who, the deep relationships. We had a laugh when one of the men in the movie has a book called The Bear Went Over the Mountain about the Soviet Afghan experience in the 1980s. It’s now required reading.
BP: We were way left in the information cycle. We were “it” along with a handful of other teams.
MN: Not only did we need this information, but the decision makers needed this information, like “yesterday.” So all of their RFIs (Request for Information) were coming to us.
MN: The maps we had were tourist maps pulled from National Geographic, the guys would lay them out on the ground and they would work it out.
On trust and teamwork:
BP: See, here’s the thing. He’d already been on the team for two years. They pulled him off the team, then 9/11 happened. I actually wanted him back on the team. I had 14 years of experience, most of that as a Green Beret. [to his CO] I need Mark Nutsch back. He knows the team; he knows the SOPs. Why would I spin someone else up?
MN: I’d been with the team for two years already, I’d deployed with them half a dozen times and had as much experience as a Special Forces officer could have in preparing for this mission. The team already trusted one another, we had been through some pretty grueling training already. We were cross trained in multiple areas. Once we were on the ground, that trust went even further.
Problem solving and Communication on the ground:
MN: That’s the great thing about these sergeants; they’ll go out, see a problem, fix it and probably solve something else.
BP: The film depicted only a limited amount of communication. We, Mark and I, we conversed about everything, unless we were apart and we couldn’t. And, even then, we would radio each other.
On the make-up of the team:
MN: We were not a young team. Our average age was 32; eleven of the 12 team members had family, 10 with kids. Just an incredible amount of experience.
On splitting up the teams:
MN: We had to continue to trust each other when we split into teams, every guy is providing input and plays a critical role in what has to happen that day. We debriefed each day, gathering information about what went right, what went wrong, what supplies we needed.
On adapting to the ground conditions and opposing forces:
BP: There were some adjustments on the ground because we had to adapt to these forces and the conditions.
MN: Dostin wanted us to attack at 2 p.m. and we couldn’t understand why. We realized that we were fighting a 19th century force, we are greatly outnumbered and we have to preserve the element of surprise. It takes time to get to the enemy. It took some adapting on that horse mounted warfare. I was a history buff and studied civil war military commanders’ strategies. Who knew that was going to be so critical to the overall strategy.
On Chief Pennington’s back injury:
BP: You’re talking about a guy who, at that time, benched about 360 and leg squatted about 450. But now, I’m going to squeeze my knees and the stirrups are high, because they have shorter legs. The next thing I know I’d blown out my back. So, it was different muscle groups.
On diplomacy, ongoing warfare and life experiences:
BP: Every man on that ODA acted as an ambassador.
MN: I grew up on a cattle ranch in Kansas, “rodeoed” through high school and college. Who knew how critical the ability to ride and understand horsemanship and maneuver warfare on horseback [would be].
BP: We didn’t learn to ride from him [Mark]. If you’ve ridden a horse, you basically know how to. What he did help us with, their stirrups were small. He showed us how to cut them down, retie them, lengthen them; underbelly straps were tearing. We’d cut the nylon off the parachutes to repair the saddles.
MN: Everyone had to work from a Commander’s Intent; no one in the rear, not at K2, not in Washington or in Tampa, no one can figure this out. It has to be the guys on the ground, and their problem solving skills and their understanding of the situation. We know our mission is to conduct unconventional warfare in an area that is geographically undefined.