KC’s Rob Riggle, Kansas soldier join forces in new movie ‘12 Strong’
Aside from Thor the god of thunder, few individuals know what it’s like to be portrayed in a movie by Chris Hemsworth.
But now Kansan Mark Nutsch is enjoying that opportunity.
In the new film “12 Strong,” Hemsworth stars as a character based on Nutsch, a veteran Green Beret officer who led the first special forces team into Afghanistan immediately following the attacks of 9⁄11. Their actions behind enemy lines helped liberate cities under the Taliban’s control.
“My daughters and sons think it’s pretty amusing,” Nutsch says of the fact that a man named People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” is playing him onscreen.
“They’ve grown up hearing snippets of what I’ve done, and they’re quite excited about ‘12 Strong.’ But this movie means a lot of things to a lot of people. It’s much broader than just me. It means a lot to the special forces community. We hope it will shed some light on the other great teams who did some incredible things.”
Based on the book “Horse Soldiers” by Doug Stanton, the film, which opens Jan. 19 in Kansas City, presents an action-heavy tale of survival that follows a dozen elite soldiers as they get embedded with Northern Alliance fighters led by an Afghan warlord.
Their mission to take out al-Qaida and Taliban strongholds is executed without use of mechanized weapons (tanks, armored vehicles, etc.), instead forcing them to travel and fight on horseback. Nutsch, an Alma, Kan., native who actually lettered on the K-State rodeo team, was among the few American combatants to have riding experience.
Hollywood obviously takes dramatic license with any story. But on a percentage basis, how much of what is seen on the screen does Nutsch (pronounced Nooch) confirm happened in real life?
“I’m not going to give you a percentage basis, but there are major aspects of our mission that are definitely portrayed,” the 48-year-old Nutsch says. “That is certainly the real factors and events interwoven throughout the scenes of the film. Overall, it portrays the spirit of a special forces team in that historic point in American history right after 9⁄11. It portrays our broader special operations task force. And it portrays our Afghan allies and the role the CIA played.”
Nutsch is not the only Kansan integral to “12 Strong.” Comedian and Marine Corps veteran Rob Riggle was among the initial military troops deployed to Afghanistan. In the film, Riggle plays Col. Max Bowers — his commanding officer during the operation.
“I wanted to make sure I was as true as I could be with my memory and what was on the page,” Riggle says. “I just wanted an honest portrayal. Col. Bowers is an outstanding commanding officer. He’s technically and tactically proficient. He knew his job and knew it well. And he cared about his men.”
Riggle first encountered Nutsch in November 2001 in the sprawling Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
“It didn’t take long for us Kansas folks to find each other,” Riggle says.
“I met Rob when he was mobilized as a Marine reservist,” Nutsch elaborates. “He had come into Mazar-i-Sharif and was working in the special forces headquarters as a public relations guy. … Who knew we would get to reconnect with Rob years later? We think it’s great he’s involved, especially with the character he’s portraying. Rob’s a lot of fun. He’s a fun guy to be around.”
Riggle had no plans to head into the combat zone in 2001. His comedic career was starting to gain momentum. But 9⁄11 changed all that.
“I was in New York City when (the planes) hit,” he recalls.
“That night I got a call from my commanding officer of my reserve unit in Manhattan saying we’d been activated. I had to get on my utilities and cammies and report to Ground Zero. We all assembled at 1 Police Plaza and walked down to Ground Zero through the ash and burned-out vehicles. There was paper everywhere. A mess. Then we worked on the bucket brigades moving the rubble by hand.”
The 47-year-old Riggle, who grew up in Overland Park and graduated from Shawnee Mission South High School, said the event affected him deeply.
“It motivated me to go back on active duty,” he remembers. “I was personally hurt, pissed and frustrated, but I was in a position to do something. At that time there was a great surge by New Yorkers and the American people to do something. Well, I was a captain in the Marine Corps with a high security clearance. I knew they were going to need people. So I volunteered.”
Within 20 days of receiving his orders in New York, Riggle was overseas in Afghanistan.
The “Saturday Night Live” veteran, best known for roles in “The Hangover,” “Step Brothers” “21 Jump Street” and on TV’s “Modern Family,” says his familiarity with the Horse Soldiers story gave him extra incentive to be involved in the movie adaptation.
“I had read the book and served with these guys. I had a little more insight than your average bear. But the intricacies of seeing them portrayed onscreen was fascinating to me,” says Riggle, who earned a film degree at the University of Kansas and a master’s in public administration from Webster University.
“With the incredibly small footprint they had, and the amount of time they had, who they were fighting, the terrain they were fighting in, 21st century warfare on horseback in the mountains against mechanized weaponry — in the annals of military history, this is one for the books. This is why they make a movie. I’m glad the story is finally being told.”
While Riggle gets to play the real-life Col. Bowers in the movie, Hemsworth does not go by the name Mark Nutsch. Instead, his leading character is called Mitch Nelson.
Nutsch explains, “Back when Doug Stanton interviewed our team, the special forces command policy was that if you were below the rank of lieutenant colonel and still operational on special forces teams — like I was and my sergeants were — to protect ourselves, they used pseudonyms for a lot of articles.”
But he was hardly anonymous during filming. He got to spend several days on the set, interacting with the cast and crew.
“Some of the actors were surprised to learn they were playing a pseudonym but excited to learn about the real guy they were playing,” he says.
Nutsch got used to the anonymity of his exploits early on. He first achieved nameless prominence when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld read a dispatch at a press conference the captain sent from his covert operation.
“We are doing amazingly well with what we have,” Nutsch’s first field report said. “Frankly, I’m surprised we have not been slaughtered.”
Does he remember the feeling of “surprise” as being one of his main emotions at the time?
“I remember the dire circumstances our allies faced,” says Nutsch, who also appears in the 2017 CNN Films documentary “Legion of Brothers.”
“The shortage of ammunition, food and cold weather clothing. These guys were in a very desperate situation. Yet our presence with the CIA team gave them a credible amount of hope. Our physical presence there represented the commitment of America to help them in their survival and help them get rid of al-Qaida and the Taliban that had taken over their country.”
Nutsch and Riggle are no longer in the military.
Riggle retired from the Marine Corps Reserve in 2013.
“It was time,” Riggle says. “I had been in for 23 years. My career in acting and comedy was becoming more demanding, making it harder to fulfill my reserve commitments. And the reserve commitments were growing. It got to that breaking point I couldn’t do both.”
While Riggle now lives in Los Angeles, Nutsch and his family remain based in Leavenworth.
“Kansas has always been my home and always will be,” he says.
Currently, he’s working on a book focusing on the events subsequent to the three weeks covered in “12 Strong.”
Nutsch hopes to “tell the rest of the story,” as well as “inspire Americans to learn more about their special forces and special operations community.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”