Before the 9/11 attacks, then-Capt. Mark Nutsch never expected he would use horseback riding — a skill he learned growing up on a Kansas cattle ranch — in battle.
But weeks later on Oct. 19, 2001, Nutsch and a team of 11 other Green Berets with the 5th Special Forces Group's Operational Detachment Alpha 595 were inserted into Afghanistan to liberate the region from the Taliban without tanks or trucks. Just horses.
“We didn’t know horses were going to be involved until about 48 hours prior to our insertion when we were given the phrase ‘be prepared to use indigenous animals for transportation,’” Nutsch told Military Times.
“No one had horse saddles ready to go, so we just...figured it out on the ground and we rode the local horses with local saddles and equipment,” Nutsch said.
ODA 595 was one of several Special Forces teams sent into Afghanistan to topple the Taliban weeks after the 9/11 attacks as part of an unconventional mission known as Task Force Dagger. The insurgent group had provided a safe haven for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.
Although Nutsch said they weren’t all expected to survive the mission, the team had earned a reputation as an experienced group familiar with combat. Five out of the 12 men were combat veterans who had served in Somalia, Bosnia or the First Gulf War, Nutsch said.
“We had a great amount of experience on that team,” Nutsch said. “Our average age was 32, we averaged eight years time in service at that point already, and we just were considered a very senior, mature unconventional warfare-focused team.”
Alongside Central Intelligence Agency counterparts and anti-Taliban ethnic leaders, ODA 595 and several other Green Beret teams helped Afghanistan from Taliban leadership just months after planes struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
Task Force Dagger
Nutsch, who went into Special Forces because he wanted to work with small teams, served as the commander of ODA 595 for two years before the 9/11 attacks and had already deployed to the Middle East half a dozen times.
Although Nutsch left the unit and started a new assignment on Sept. 10, 2001, that was short-lived.
ODA 595 needed Nutsch, and he was subsequently reassigned the commander of the team. Days later on Sept. 14, 2001, Nutsch learned ODA 595 was poised to deploy.
“My team was informed that we were going to be the first Special Forces team deployed from the Special Forces Group into a mission that we didn’t fully know what it was going to be at that point,” Nutsch said. “But they had set us aside and said ‘start planning.’”
To prepare for Task Force Dagger, ODA 595 pored over National Geographic and tourist maps as they studied up on the regional personalities. Specifically, Nutsch said the team identified the anti-Taliban leaders of the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras who ultimately formed the Northern Alliance. The Green Berets and CIA counterparts worked to unite these groups to form a militia with nearly 5,000 fighters.
ODA 595 first headed to Uzbekistan on Oct. 5, 2001, before crossing into Afghanistan on Oct. 19 in an MH-47 Chinook helicopter and connecting with Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum and his Uzbek militia.
Dostum was a former communist general who had earned some notoriety for changing his allegiance in previous Afghan conflicts.
“We knew nothing about these guys,” retired Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland, former U.S. Army Special Operations Command commander said, according to the Associated Press. “All of these guys have blood on their hands. None of these guys are clean actors.”
“There were a lot of unknowns,” Mulholland added. “That’s being gentle.”
Upon arrival, the team had a lot to learn — including how to ride the horses the locals rode within hours of touching down in Afghanistan.
“We’re figuring out, how do you carry your rifle? What gear do I keep on my body? What can I put on the horse? What do I leave behind? You know, can I trust the guys next to me? Is there an ambush up ahead?” Nutsch said.
“There’s a whole lot of things going on besides having this half-wild animal that you’re trying to figure out how to ride,” Nutsch said.
According to Nutsch, it was “pure fate” that he grew up on a cattle ranch and already knew his way around horses. Not everyone was as experienced as Nutsch. One of the other men on the team had ridden horses a little in high school, and it was a completely new experience for the other 10 members.
The men essentially received a horseback riding crash course involving hours on the horses as soon as they arrived in Afghanistan — a painful process that demanded using new muscles.
Furthermore, the saddles and riding gear wasn’t designed to accommodate the Americans, who were larger and heavier than their Afghanistan counterparts, according to an Army news release. Broken stirrups were repaired with parachute cargo straps.
Although Nutsch said there was a steep learning curve at first, the men adapted well and the horses actually provided them with some flexibility. For example, they could ride at any time during the day or night, in all terrain types.
Meanwhile, the Taliban and al-Qaida had limited mobility using in the tanks left over from when the Soviet Union exited Afghanistan in the 1980s.
“The horses allowed us to get in around them and behind them, and cut them off basically from reinforcement and retreat,” Nutsch said. This was possible because the special forces teams worked in three-man cells, along with their Afghan allies, and could view the enemy from various vantage points in adjacent districts, Nutsch said.
Although Nutsch said there were several close calls, no one on his team was seriously injured during Task Force Dagger.
On Nov. 10, ODA 595 and militia allies liberated the city of Mazar-e-Sharif from the Taliban, marking a huge victory that paved the way for future success. Weeks later, Taliban surrendered in other areas of Afghanistan.
“Our American presence on the ground gave them hope and emboldened them that they can have a little better future,” Nutsch said about the Afghan allies. “And I’m proud to say that 18 years later, those groups are still united and trying to be part of the political solution.”
The brotherhood between Nutsch and the other men he served with has continued since the members exited the service. In fact, Nutsch, several other ODA 595 members and Green Berets teamed up five years ago to launch a business together, the American Freedom Distillery.
The company’s main product? Horse Soldier Bourbon Whiskey.
The bottle features an image of a soldier mounted on a horse with glass molded in steel from the World Trade Center to remember those who lost their lives on 9/11.
Although the men didn’t have a background in this field, they’ve used their military experience and applied it to the business.
“We approached it like a special operations mission,” Nutsch said. “We don’t know a whole lot about what’s going on, but we’re studying it, we’re learning it.”
The company, based out of St. Petersburg, Fla., has distribution in seven states: Florida, Indiana, Texas, Nevada, California, Virginia and New York. Major Navy Exchange and Coast Guard Exchanges also carry the bourbon, along with Army-Air Force Exchanges in Florida.
According to Nutsch, opening the distillery was their way of living the “dream we’ve been defending.”
Nutsch and one of his ODA 595 teammates, retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Bob Pennington, are also working on publishing their own book, which will focus on operations over the span of several months for the 2001 mission.
“You could do a whole series of books on those guys from that 595 team,” Nutsch said.
Remembering the mission
In New York City near Ground Zero, a statue of a Special Forces soldier on horseback is erected to honor the special operations teams who headed into Afghanistan in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks.
Additionally, Nutsch and ODA 595’s story is the subject of the book, “Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan” that was published in 2010.
The book is the inspiration behind the Jerry Bruckheimer–produced film called “12 Strong” that was released in 2018 and stars Chris Hemsworth as Capt. Mitch Nelson, a character based on Nutsch.
“Obviously, it’s very accurate,” Nutsch joked about the movie. “Chris Hemsworth portrays me in the film, which my teenage daughters find very amusing.”
Nutsch said it was an honor the film was produced because movies aren’t often made about Green Berets.
“It’s very humbling that they worked to try to represent their portrayal of our portion of our mission,” Nutsch said.
“We’re very proud of that, but it’s still Hollywood,” Nutsch said. “Unfortunately, we were not as heavily involved in the production of the movie as we were led to believe we would be.”
Nutsch said that he and Pennington did visit the set for three days to meet the production staff and the actors.
“We hope that that movie sheds light on that historic mission and will shed some light on some of the other missions that happened during that time frame,” Nutsch said.
Additionally, Nutsch and other members of ODA 595 were featured in a 2017 documentary called "Legion of Brothers” that CNN Films, and the husband-wife team of journalist Peter Bergen and documentarian Tresha Mabile, produced.
Until the documentary and “12 Strong” came out, Nutsch said his family and those of his team were not fully aware of what ODA 595 was involved in for Task Force Dagger.
Those films have prompted deeper conversations with family members as they have gotten a better “glimpse” of what ODA 595 experienced in Afghanistan conducting Task Force Dagger, Nutsch said.
“There’s tough parts about this mission,” Nutsch said. “But I think it’s a testament to the power of what small teams that are enabled and empowered and resourced can do in incredible, challenging and complex situations.”