The movie “12 Strong” arrives in theaters this Friday, and tells the harrowing story of the first U.S. special forces mission in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The following is the second part of an Army.mil exclusive three-part feature recounts the events of the Green Berets’ first mission in Afghanistan, as they sought to destroy the Taliban regime and deny Al-Qaida sanctuary in that country.
ON THE GROUND
Special operations forces have a famously tight bond. As the Green Berets stepped off the SOAR’s highly modified MH-47 Chinooks into Afghanistan, they stepped back in time, to a time of dirt roads and horses. They stepped into another world, one of arid deserts and towering peaks, of “rugged, isolated, beautiful, different colored stones and geographical formations, different shades of red in the morning as the sun came up,” said Maj. Mark Nutsch, then the commander of ODA 595, one of the first two 12-man teams to arrive in Afghanistan. The world was one of all-but-impassable trails, of “a canyon with very dominating, several-hundred-feet cliffs.” It was a world of freezing nights, where intelligence was slim, women were invisible, and friend and foe looked the same.
They arrived in the middle of the night, of course, to the sort of pitch blackness that can only be found miles from electricity and civilization, at the mercy of the men waiting for them. “We weren’t sure how friendly the link up was going to be,” said Nutsch. “We were prepared for a possible hot insertion. … We were surrounded by — on the LZ there were armed militia factions. … We had just set a helicopter down in that. … It was tense, but … the link up went smoothly.”
The various special forces teams that were in Afghanistan split into smaller three-man and six-man cells to cover more ground. Some of them quickly found themselves on borrowed horses, in saddles meant for Afghans who were much lighter and shorter than American Green Berets. Most of the Soldiers had never ridden before, and they learned by immediately riding for hours, forced to keep up with skilled Afghan horsemen, on steeds that constantly wanted to fight each other.
But that’s what Green Berets do: they adapt and overcome. “The guys did a phenomenal job learning how to ride that rugged terrain,” said Nutsch, who worked on a cattle ranch and participated in rodeos in college. Even so, riding requires muscles most Americans don’t use every day, and after a long day in the saddle, the Soldiers were in excruciating pain, especially as the stirrups were far too short. They had to start jerry-rigging the stirrups with parachute cord.
“Initially you had a different horse for every move … and you’d have a different one, different gait or just willingness to follow the commands of the rider,” Nutsch remembered. “A lot of them didn’t have a bit or it was a very crude bit. The guys had to work through all of that and use less than optimal gear. … Eventually we got the same pool of horses we were using regularly.”
Nutsch had always been a history buff, and he had carefully studied Civil War cavalry charges and tactics, but he had never expected to ride horses into battle. In fact, it was the first time American Soldiers rode to war on horseback since World War II, and this ancient form of warfare was now considered unconventional.
“We’re blending, basically, 19th-century tactics with 20th-century weapons and 21st-century technology in the form of GPS, satellite communications, American air power,” Nutsch pointed out.
And there were military tactics involved. Even the timing of the attacks was crucial. Nutsch remembers wondering why the Northern Alliance wanted to go after the Taliban midafternoon instead of in the morning, but it accounted for their slower speed on horseback, while still leaving time to consolidate any gains before darkness fell. (They didn’t have night vision goggles.)
Supported by the Green Berets, Northern Alliance fighters directly confronted the Taliban over and over again. Some factions, like Nutsch’s, relied on horses for that first month. Others had pickup trucks or other vehicles, but they usually charged into battle armed with little more than AK-47s, machine guns, grenades and a few handfuls of ammunition. Meanwhile, the Taliban had tanks and armored personnel carriers and antiaircraft guns they used as cannons, all left behind by the Soviets when they evacuated Afghanistan in the 1980s.
It took a lot of heart, a lot of courage. “We heard a loud roar coming from the west,” said Master Sgt. Keith Gamble, then a weapons sergeant on ODA 585, as he remembered one firefight. “We had no clue what it was until we saw about 500 to 1,000 NA soldiers charging up the ridge line. I called it a ‘Brave Heart’ charge. What the NA didn’t realize was that the route leading up the ridgeline was heavily mined. The NA did not fare too well, as they received numerous injuries and had to retreat. We continued to pound the ridge line with bombs until the NA took it that evening.”
“They weren’t suicidal,” Nutsch, who worked with different ethnic groups, agreed, “but they did have the courage to get up and quickly close that distance on those vehicles so they could eliminate that vehicle or that crew. We witnessed their bravery on several occasions where they charged down our flank (to attack) these armored vehicles or these air defense guns that are being used in a direct fire role, and kill the crew and capture that gun for our own use.”