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Campaign for Senate hopeful from N.H. uses photo trickery to hoodwink reporters

Ron Bolduc, running for Senate in New Hampshire, released an ad that uses misleading photos to embellish his military credentials. (Video: Don Bolduc)
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“In the wake of 9/11, an elite group of American soldiers rode through Afghanistan on horseback to fight the Taliban. New Hampshire’s Don Bolduc was one of them.”

— Text of an announcement video for retired Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, running for Senate in New Hampshire, June 24, 2020

Bolduc, who is running in the Republican primary to challenge incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D), had a distinguished military career. He served 10 tours in Afghanistan, was awarded two Purple Hearts and five Bronze Star medals and even survived a harrowing friendly-fire episode when an American B-52 dropped a 2,000-pound bomb on his position, killing three Green Berets.

With that kind of background, one would think there would be little need to embellish your military credentials. Yet Bolduc’s campaign has suggested he was a member of the famous “horse soldiers” depicted in a Hollywood movie — and done little to correct the record when the news media has inaccurately reported this claim.

Let’s unspool the video.

The Facts

Just 15 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the CIA and the U.S. military began to send Special Forces personnel into northern Afghanistan to work with local tribal leaders who were battling the Taliban that controlled the country and had harbored Osama bin Laden. The CIA team arrived with $3 million in $100 bills. The teams of military units came from the 5th Special Forces Group.

Two 12-man teams — Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 555 and ODA 595 — arrived in mid-October 2001. ODA 555 linked up with warlord Fahim Khan and his forces. ODA 595, led by Capt. Mark D. Nutsch, joined forces with Gen. Abdulrashid Dostum, in the Dari-a-Souf Valley, near Mazar-e Sharif, a Taliban stronghold. When ODA 595 arrived, it turned out Dostum’s forces relied on horses for transportation in the rugged, mountainous countryside.

Cue Hollywood. Nutsch was the only team member with any experience handling horses, though the others caught on, especially after they got proper gear. The team’s exploits became legendary. With ODA 595’s help, Dostum quickly routed the Taliban, capturing Mazar-e Sharif on Nov. 10. A best-selling book, “Horse Soldiers” by Doug Stanton, appeared in 2009 and a movie, “12 Strong,” starring Chris Hemsworth, was released in 2018.

Bolduc’s announcement video plays on this history. There are video clips of Fox News anchors discussing ODA 595. Stanton is quoted. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld holds up a famous photo of ODA 595 on its horses, saying, “There’s a picture of them on horseback.” Finally, an image of the iconic statue of an ODA 595 soldier on horseback, located at the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero in New York, is shown. (The statue is dedicated to all America’s Special Operations forces and their response to 9/11.)

In between these images, there are photos of Bolduc on horses. The implication is that Bolduc was part of ODA 595.

Stanton’s book, however, makes no mention of Don Bolduc. Bolduc’s brother, Armand (known as John), headed ODA 585, which had arrived in Kunduz, also in northern Afghanistan, to support local commander Bariullah Khan. “I know John,” Stanton told The Fact Checker. “I have not met Don.”

Nutsch, who runs a distillery that produces a well-rated bourbon called “Horse Soldier,” confirmed that Don Bolduc was not part of his team. “He was not on my immediate 12-man team,” he said.

There’s a hint in the video that something is off when an announcer refers to “teams of Green Berets assigned secret missions in Afghanistan” over a photo that includes an identification of Don Bolduc.

That’s because Don Bolduc, at the time a major, was assigned to southern Afghanistan — after ODA 595 had already helped capture Mazar-e Sharif.

Bolduc arrived there late in November, near the city of Kandahar, as a member of Special Operations Command and Control Element (SOCCE) 52, which had tactical control of ODAs 574 and 583, according to “A Different Kind of War,” an Army history published in 2010. Rather than riding horses, he traveled in a vehicle convoy with a force led by Hamid Karzai, the future leader of Afghanistan. “As the motley group moved south over the bumpy roads, individual trucks and cars continually raced up on the berm to see Karzai in person,” the history recounted. Bolduc is quoted as saying: “It was crazy because [the Afghans] didn’t understand convoy operations.”

War Made New,” a 2006 book by Max Boot, described the convoy as “an odd assortment of beaten-up vehicles that someone described as ‘leftover props from a Mad Max movie.’” We could not locate any account that suggests horses were used by the U.S. military in the southern Afghanistan operations in 2001.

Some of Bolduc’s exploits in Afghanistan — in 2006 — are referenced in another book, “Lions of Kandahar,” published in 2011. But that also did not involve horses. (Another Bolduc video, from April 2020, calls him “an original horse soldier — one of the lions of Kandahar.” The geography may be lost on most viewers.)

The announcement video includes two misleading images to suggest Bolduc was part of ODA 595. Both show Bolduc on horses, but forensic examination shows the photos are not from 2001 or even 2002.

In one photo, Bolduc is wearing a digital camouflage pattern not introduced by the Army until 2004.

The other photo is dated Jan. 16, 2011, and was taken in Uruzgan province, according to the U.S. Special Operations Command website. The video crops out a man wearing modern gear and yellows the photograph to make it appear old. This picture appears in the video just after Rumsfeld holds up the photo of ODA 595 on horseback and before an announcer says: “It was the beginning of an amazing military operation.”

With this type of visual trickery, it’s little wonder that reporters think Bolduc was part of the team portrayed in the movie.

  • New Hampshire Union Leader: “Bolduc was one of the soldiers depicted in ‘12 Strong,’ a movie about a horseback-riding Special Forces team that fought the Taliban in Afghanistan soon after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.”
  • Washington Examiner: “Retired Brigadier General Bolduc, 57, who was one of the famed ‘horse soldiers’ who rode alongside the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attack.”
  • Military Times: “Bolduc’s career in the Army included 10 tours in Afghanistan, and he was among the legendary ‘horse soldiers’ — U.S. special operations forces who invaded Afghanistan on horseback following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.”
  • WMUR TV: “He and his team were the subjects of the 2018 movie ‘12 Strong.’”
  • The Resurgent: “Most notably, Bolduc was one of 12 horse back-riding Species [sic.] Forces members, or ‘horse soldiers,’ who fought the Taliban in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Bolduc and other ‘horse soldiers’ were recently portrayed in the blockbuster film 12 Strong.”
  • Fox and Friends”: “A decorated veteran who fought the Taliban on horseback now running for Senate in New Hampshire.”

The Bolduc campaign has distributed these articles on social media and highlighted his status as “horse soldier” in its fundraising appeals. Even Combat Veterans for Congress, in an endorsement, cited the movie: “He and his team were the subjects of the 2018 movie ’12 Strong.’”

To some extent, who can call themselves a “horse soldier” is perhaps a semantic distinction. The website of Nutsch’s distillery references the “daring insertion of small teams of Green Berets into northern Afghanistan” and specifically ODA 595 as “horse soldiers.”

But Nutsch said the term could refer to anyone in the 5th Special Forces who was part of the initial push in Afghanistan at the time.

Stanton agreed. “It’s not so much they rode horses as they fought an unconventional war,” he said.

Nutsch said he thought the honorific “horse soldiers” was coined by the military. But Stanton said “Mark is wrong — dead wrong.” The phrase was the brainchild of Stanton’s book editor, Colin Harrison at Scribner. “Colin deserves at least 98 percent of the credit for coming up with the title,” he said. “I never thought the book title would take off that way.”

Bolduc’s campaign dismissed questions about the photos in the video. “Don Bolduc and his team used every resource available to them from the outset of their operation, including horseback,” said senior adviser Josh McElveen. “That he didn’t save more pictures is an indication of fighting a war, instead of sightseeing.” He added that “at no time has General Bolduc stated or insinuated that his operation was the focus of the Hollywood retelling, and he is quick to correct those who conflate the horse soldiers moniker and the movie.”

We also received a statement from the general via his sister-in-law:

“I have always stipulated that I was in the south with Karzai and not part of the team in the North. I was part of the original teams in Afghanistan that used horses, donkeys, Toyota pick up trucks, and Toyota Corollas, and jingle trucks. My comments are well documented here in NH,” Bolduc said. “The book is not a comprehensive history of all the teams in Afghanistan. Neither the book or the movie depicted any teams outside of the teams in the north and east of Afghanistan fighting against the Northern Alliance. The Fact Checker is going down a rabbit hole that has no rabbit.”

The Pinocchio Test

As we said, Bolduc had a distinguished military career. He was one of the first Special Forces officers in Afghanistan. That credential may indeed qualify him as a “horse soldier” even if he was not part of ODA 595, the 12-man team that rode horses to victory.

But where the video goes wrong is that it so closely associates Bolduc with the ODA 595 legend that viewers may assume his exploits were depicted in a Hollywood movie. The photo trickery in the ad is no accident. Clearly it was effective enough that some reporters have taken the bait — and the Bolduc campaign does not appear to have corrected the record. However, we found no evidence of Bolduc himself embellishing the story when specifically asked about it.

The Bolduc campaign earns Two Pinocchios.

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