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'12 Strong' tells the story of famed Special Forces ‘Horse soldiers’

By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. | Published: January 13, 2018

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — Long before Bob Pennington was old enough to join the Army, it was a movie that set him down his life's path.

After watching "The Green Berets," a 1968 film starring John Wayne, Pennington turned to his father – then still in the U.S. Army – and announced that he, too, would be a Special Forces soldier.

"I said, 'That's what I'm going to do," Pennington said Saturday. "I'm going to be a Green Beret."

Decades later and Pennington once again sat down to watch a film starring Special Forces soldiers. But this time, it was his own life portrayed on the screen.

More than 16 years after Pennington served with one of the first Special Forces teams to enter Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the story of Operational Detachment-Alpha 595, better known as the famed "Horse soldiers" has been made into a major motion picture by Warner Bros.

The film, "12 Strong," is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who also produced Black Hawk Down and the Pirates of the Caribbean films. It stars Chris Hemsworth and Oscar nominee Michael Shannon, among others.

On Saturday, nearly a week before the movie premieres in theaters nationwide on Jan. 19, it premiered in Fayetteville at an invitation-only event.

More than 600 soldiers, family members and other guests saw the film at the AMC Fayetteville 14 theater on Lake Valley Drive.

Among them were several soldiers whose actions are featured in the movie, including Pennington, a retired chief warrant officer 4; Mark Nutsch, a retired major; and John F. Mulholland, a retired lieutenant general.

Pennington, whose character is named Bob Spencer in the film, is played by Shannon. Nutsch, whose character is named Mitch Nelson, is played by Hemsworth. And Mulholland, whose real name is used the film, is played by William Fichtner.

U.S. Army Special Operations Command, which is headquartered at Fort Bragg, cooperated with Warner Bros. in making the movie, which is billed as the "declassified story of the first American soldiers sent into Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks."

The film is based on the book, "Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan," by author Doug Stanton.

According to officials, the film is a realistic look at the work of Green Berets, the nation's elite unconventional warfighters. Navy SEALs and other special operations forces often get more attention in Hollywood, while Green Berets, which pride themselves on being "quiet professionals," are not often the focus of big-budget films.

More than brute force, Special Forces soldiers trade in trust while embedded with indigenous forces around the world.

The new movie by director Nicolai Fuglsig, which also features actors Michael Pena and Rob Riggle, focuses on ODA 595, a team from the 5th Special Forces Group that deploys to Afghanistan in the days following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Hemsworth, as Nelson, leads the team into rugged terrain as they convince Northern Alliance General Abdul Rashid Dostum to partner with American forces against the Taliban.

"In addition to overcoming mutual distrust and a vast cultural divide, the Americans – accustomed to state-of-the-art warfare – must adopt the rudimentary tactics of the Afghan horse soldiers," according to a synopsis of the film provided by Warner Bros. "But despite their uneasy bond, the new allies face overwhelming odds; outnumbered and outgunned by a ruthless enemy that does not take prisoners."

Officials have said the film is an accurate portrayal of the work of Special Forces soldiers in the early days of the war.

"The service members portrayed in the movie are the embodiment of Army Special Operations forces, trained to an elite level, providing a strategic value to the nation through an indigenous approach, precision targeting operations, developing understanding and wielding influence, and crisis response – all of which are represented in the film," a USASOC spokesman said.

Before the premiere, Nutsch, Pennington and Mulholland discussed their real-life experiences and their hopes for the movie.

"I hope it inspires more Green Beret stories," Pennington said.

In recent years, SEALs get most of the attention from Hollywood, he said. But while their missions last three to five hours, Special Forces soldiers are often involved for three to five months or, possibly, three to five years.

Pennington said "12 Strong" is the first major film since "The Green Berets" to depict that for the American public.

Mulholland, who would later command USASOC, led Task Force Dagger, which is what the military called the group of soldiers from the 5th Special Forces Group and 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and special tactics airmen from Air Forces Special Operations Command who entered Afghanistan in October 2001, weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The task force never numbered more than 300 men, yet was able to bring down the Taliban regime in less than a few months while working with Afghan partners.

On Saturday, he spoke of the uncertainty of the mission. And the possibility that the soldiers would never return.

"It does a good job," Mulholland said of the film. "It captures the friction of that indigenous environment... if you don't establish report with those guys, you're done."

But "12 Strong" is also only part of the full story, Nutsch said. "There are so many untold great missions."

Warner Bros. also held premieres in other military communities, including Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where the 5th Special Forces Group is based. In recent weeks, the film has been advertised near Fort Bragg with at least two billboards, located along the All American Freeway and Bragg Boulevard.

To coincide with the film, the Airborne & Special Operations Museum in downtown Fayetteville also introduced a special temporary exhibit on Saturday, featuring artifacts from the soldiers who deployed to Afghanistan directly after the 9/11 attacks.

Those artifacts include a saddle used by ODA 595, steel from the World Trade Center that they carried throughout the deployment and other items.

Museum officials said the exhibit will be on display through the end of January.

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(c)2018 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)
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